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Mount Hermon

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

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

Welcome to Mount Hermon

Welcome to Mount Hermon

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

Approaching the snowy peak

Approaching the snowy peak

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

Map of the Mount Hermon park

Map of the Mount Hermon park

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

From the bottom looking up

From the bottom looking up

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

Riding the cable car up the mountainside

Riding the cable car up the mountainside

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

The upper area of Mount Hermon

The upper area of Mount Hermon

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

Panoramic looking west to the Golan and Upper Galilee

Panoramic looking west to the Golan and Upper Galilee

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

Bracha enjoying her bagel at the checkpoint

Bracha enjoying her bagel at the checkpoint

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

Mr Snowman

Mr Snowman

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

Nothing like an icy pine tree to symbolise winter

Nothing like an icy pine tree to symbolise winter

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

The trusty Dacia Duster

The trusty Dacia Duster

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

Sa'ar Falls

Sa’ar Falls

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

Tasty hummus in Qatsrin

Tasty hummus in Qatsrin

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

Snow in the Golan

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

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

The Golan white with snow

The Golan white with snow

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

Olea Essence olive oil factory in Qatsrin

Olea Essence olive oil factory in Qatsrin

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

Fun way to start off our trip

Fun way to start off our trip

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

Our tzimmer in Ein Zivan

Our tzimmer in Ein Zivan

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

Atop Mount Bental overlooking the snowy plateau

Atop Mount Bental overlooking the snowy plateau

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

Coffee Anan and the famous signpost

Coffee Anan and the famous signpost

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

Sunset from Mount Bental's summit

Sunset from Mount Bental’s summit

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

Dinner from HaBokrim restaurant

Dinner from HaBokrim restaurant

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

Sites in the Northwest Negev

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

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

A crane in the fields

A crane in the fields

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

Gazing into the bleak Re'im reservoir

Gazing into the bleak Re’im reservoir

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

Observation platform

Observation platform

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

Little green bee-eater

Little green bee-eater

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

Nachal HeBesor

Nachal HeBesor

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

The Pipe Bridge

The Pipe Bridge

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

The marshy reservoir

The marshy reservoir

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

Crossing the hanging bridge over Nachal HaBesor

Crossing the hanging bridge over Nachal HaBesor

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

Oh imperial eagles, where art thou

Oh imperial eagles, where art thou?

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

An unidentifiable blob

An unidentifiable blob

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

Black kites swarming over the landfill

Black kites swarming over the landfill

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

A discarded fish tail that fell from the sky

A discarded fish tail that fell from the sky

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

Some black kites perched nearby

Some black kites perched nearby

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

Let us not forget the starlings

Let us not forget the starlings

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

Hulda Reservoir

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

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

Hulda reservoir

Hulda reservoir

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

Green fields outside Hulda

Green fields outside Hulda

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

A siege of herons guarding the centre of the reservoir

A siege of herons guarding the centre of the reservoir

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

Record shot of our first great crested grebe

Record shot of our first great crested grebe

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

Flock of northern lapwings flying by once again

Flock of northern lapwings flying by once again

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

Sun-kissed cauliflower plants

Sun-kissed cauliflower plants

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

Greater spotted eagle making a quick getaway

Greater spotted eagle making a quick getaway

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

There's a twinkle in his eyes

There’s a twinkle in his eyes

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

Record shot of the blessed European serin

Record shot of the blessed European serin

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

A final parting look at Hulda's wild reservoir

A final parting look at Hulda’s wild reservoir

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

Vernal Pools of the Mercaz

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

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

Levinsky College's vernal pool

Levinsky College’s vernal pool

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

All about vernal pools

All about vernal pools

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

Penduline tit in the reeds

Penduline tit in the reeds

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

Muddy path along Nachal Achiya

Muddy path along Nachal Achiya

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

Afeka's vernal pool still waiting for the rains

Afeka’s vernal pool still waiting for the rains

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

Adam photographing the prized jewel beetle

Adam photographing the prized jewel beetle

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

Within the Samaritan burial caves

Within the Samaritan burial caves

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

'Rolling rock' grave door

‘Rolling rock’ grave door

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

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

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

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

Rook receiving the sunset

Rook receiving the sunset

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

Four Lepidurus apus and one rarer Triops cancriformis

Four Lepidurus apus and one rarer Triops cancriformis

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

Neglected vernal pool in Rosh HaAyin

Neglected vernal pool in Rosh HaAyin

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

Adam opting for a really close photo of triops

Adam opting for a really close photo of triops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of the North Tel Aviv vernal pools

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

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

Tzora’s Fields and Reservoir

In Central Israel, Israel on April 10, 2021 at 8:40 PM

With each passing month, keeping up with this precious blog becomes increasingly more difficult. Recently, I have begun a temporary full-time job driving a self loading crane truck for a company called Eshed, as well as making progress on my MA thesis – a challenge in and of itself. But, there are backlogged adventures that are waiting to be documented, so here we go. Continuing with a spree of bonafide birding trips, a few days after our highly successful visit to Matash Ayalon last November, we hit up the next hotspot, the fields and reservoirs outside of Tzora, a kibbutz adjacent to Beit Shemesh. As per the Matash Ayalon trip, I had seen numerous reports of great birding at Tzora on eBird, an excellent website where birders all around the world upload their sighting checklists.

The lush green fields of Tzora

The lush green fields of Tzora

As usual, public transportation brought us to a bus stop just alongside Nachal Soreq, along which we’d be walking to our destination. What seemed to be a relatively direct route when gauging from Google Map’s satellite imagery turned into quite a meandering, circuitous route passing construction and more.

Common kestrel hunting nearby

Common kestrel hunting nearby

However, this turned out to have its rewards as well – we enjoyed rather exciting birding moments, with sightings of marsh harriers, black-shouldered kites, sparrowhawks, a greater spotted eagle, and even an osprey which Adam spotted far off in the distance. Plus, there were droves of chiffchaff literally on every tree and shrub.

Fording the brown stream with sticks and stones

Fording the brown stream with sticks and stones

At last, having continued along our path, we found ourselves where we needed to be – yet, Nachal Soreq was most decidedly blocking our way. We had anticipated a natural crossing of sorts, but with none available, we were forced to ford the stream using just our wits and whatever resources we could find.

Freshwater leech on a rock

Freshwater leech on a rock

It was an exciting if not laborious venture, and while gathering up some large rocks, we found some freshwater leeches – my first time seeing such notorious creatures. Large tree branches were added to the mix and within twenty minutes we were rock hopping our way across the sluggish, brown and somewhat polluted water.

Adam searching for elusive bitterns

Adam searching for elusive bitterns

After a quick circumnavigation of the main reservoir’s tall, reed-lined banks, we arrived at our first vantage spot to spy on the bobbing ducks. We saw mostly mallards, shovelers and teals – all relatively common ducks in Israel – but we kept looking about here and there, hoping to find something cool.

A record shot of a hen harrier flushing a frightened pipit

A record shot of a hen harrier flushing a frightened pipit

As we reached the lone carob tree on the western bank, we saw a series of exciting things one after the next. First, a hen harrier was spotted taking long, low sweeps over a nearby field, searching for panicked songbirds for its next meal. Then, a marsh harrier began patrolling the reservoir’s edge, getting fairly close to us. Next, a few greater spotted eagles appeared overhead in the thermals, and then a bold common kestrel began hunting really close by. Raptors are exciting, sure, but what really amused me was watching a coot scoot about in the water, paddling willynilly with a prized carob pod in its bill, evading potential thieves. I still wonder if it ever made any use of that tough pod, but we’ll never know.

Beneath the carob tree on the banks of the large reservoir

Beneath the carob tree on the banks of the large reservoir

We ate some food in the comforting shade and, when we were done resting, got back up to walk the fields – a slow but eventual route back to whence we came. A few starlings were spied hiding among the spur-winged lapwings in a nearby fallow field, as well as one or two northern lapwings. Next, some water pipits were spotted bouncing around the edge of the field where it meets the path, accompanied by some ever-present crested larks. We searched for the locally rare little bunting that was seen recently, but found no bunting of any size.

My very first water pipit

My very first water pipit

Our walk took us further along the lush green fields, where undoubtedly hundreds of fine feathered friends were hiding, until we reached a smaller, nearly empty reservoir where we had some poor sightings of some sandpipers and a ruff or two. From the fields and reservoir we transitioned into a pomegranate orchard, the tree branches drooping under the weight of these large, red globules. I delighted in the scene, and noted that further up the tree rows we could see workers picking the ripe fruit, and then tractors carrying off the bountiful crop.

Laden pomegranate trees

Laden pomegranate trees

We passed through and entered a shady pecan orchard, the grassy ground littered with ripe pecans that had fallen from the trees. We took shelter under the shade of the proud trees and lounged in the lush grass, finding comfort among the nuts. As we rested we heard a familiar sound – the distinct calls of common cranes – and wondered if there were some hidden somewhere in the orchard, or perhaps flying overhead. We looked and looked but found no trace of any cranes, even as we exited the pecan trees.

Taking a break in the shade of the pecan trees (photo Adam Ota)

Taking a break in the shade of the pecan trees (photo Adam Ota)

To our left was the Teperberg Winery, Israel’s oldest winery as well as one of the largest in the country. The building complex that we saw was a recent construction, when the company relocated to Tzora. It would have been exciting to visit the winery, but alas, we were on a schedule and it’s unlikely that the winery would have been open to visitors due to the coronavirus social limitations set in place.

Nachal Soreq flowing along peacefully

Nachal Soreq flowing along peacefully

Our path took us along Nachal Soreq once again, this time forging a new route towards a different bus stop along the main road. This proved to be a good decision as almost immediately we saw a nice male sparrowhawk take flight mere metres from us, and then a grey wagtail was spotted dipping around along the flowing stream. If that wasn’t exciting enough, Adam then pointed out a straited heron that we can accidentally startled and was now perched on a nearby tree.

Straited heron in the low tree

Straited heron in the low tree

We continued along, accompanied now and again by yet another sparrowhawk, and made our way to the bus stop. It was already after 2pm and we were leaving feeling quite satisfied with our nice hike to this new place which ultimately provided some exciting nature sightings.

Matash Ayalon

In Central Israel, Israel on December 6, 2020 at 9:50 AM

November is an exciting month, especially for those interested in locally rare and unique birds, as it is the end of the migration season and the cusp of winter. With the country’s birders running about finding all sorts of goodies, I was just happy to have some good free days to explore areas I’ve never been to. As per usual, I turned to my bird-friend Adam Ota and we went on a spree of exciting trips to places that were new to us. The first took place on Nov 10th, when we visited Matash Ayalon, a water treatment centre located just beside Road 6, roughly between Ramla and the Ben Shemen Forest.

Matash Ayalon’s reservoirs

Now, most people wouldn’t think of a water treatment centre to be a choice place for a trip, let alone a birding excursion. However, the large reservoir of water attached to the centre is an ecosystem of its own, hosting a wide range of wildlife in and outside the murky waters. In the colder months of the year, it serves as a hotel for numerous duck species, as well as a nice handful of birds of prey to balance it all out.

A posing chiffchaff

Our trip started with a bus that took us to the area of Kfar Chabad, where we bumped into an old friend of mine from when I worked at the school. Another bus took us to the area of Azaria, practically on the banks of Nachal Gezer. Consulting Google Maps, we mapped out a nice and relatively direct walk to Matash Ayalon. In hindsight, it was amazing to have this added walk, as we saw so many interesting things along the way.

Adam photographing the Mediterranean mantis

First and foremost, just as we left the road and entered the grassland via a small trail, Adam spotted our very first Mediterranean mantis (Iris oratoria). With such a strong start, our anticipation was mounting and we were shortly rewarded with another fantastic sighting. A sparrowhawk was spotted coming near, and we stood stock still as it suddenly dipped low and did a low pass over the barren field before us. I wish I had the photographic equipment to capture something this incredible, but to even watch it with binoculars as it glided less than a foot over the ground, was breathtaking.

A pair of black-shouldered kites

It perched near us, allowing for a few mediocre pictures, and then flew off, leaving us to find another bird of prey. A marsh harrier made a low pass as well, disappearing before we got very good visuals but then reappearing with subtle grandeur. Kestrels and countless greenfinches, as well as some white wagtails and crested larks, entertained us as we made our way to the underpass that allowed us to safely cross Road 431. On the other side, the reservoir was almost close enough to touch.

Adam scanning the main reservoir

As we approached from the southeast, we were confronted with large, empty fields which promised to be hiding something interesting. Adam scanned with his powerful 12×40 Soviet military binoculars and found us a steppe buzzard perched on some piled-up branches. Then, another kestrel which breezed right by, and a common buzzard up in the air. It’s glorious seeing so many birds of prey, but I was also itching to check out the ducks in the water below. On the way, though, we took a pause to pick some Syrian mesquite (Prosopis farcta) seed pods, which are edible and used as a mild seasoning in some areas of the world. Adam has since used some of the pods in some chicken soup, but reported that the taste wasn’t as pronounced as he had hoped.

Ducks on the banks of the reservoir

The first ducks to be seen were some mallards and northern shovelers, with their big shovel-like bills, as well as some little grebes and coots. As we progressed down the road, more and more of the reservoir became visible until suddenly the whole southern bank revealed a ridiculous amount of ducks (and more). I was nearly speechless as I looked upon hundreds upon hundreds of ducks, which appeared to be primarily shovelers and teals, with a scattering of mallard, coots and several species of waders.

So many ducks!

While the numbers were breathtaking, it was what happened next that truly amazed us. As we were looking around, noticing a few raptors here and there, a chunky falcon was flushed out from somewhere up ahead. It was mere moments before we locked on, with both binoculars and camera, and confirmed that it was a gorgeous peregrine falcon.

Peregrine falcon (ssp. peregrinus) flying by

We were elated, as this was our second peregrine within weeks – the previous one, our first, was found in fields outside of Givat HaShlosha. What made these sightings even more exciting was that they were of different subspecies, this new one the nominate peregrinus, while the former was of the calidus suspecies, hailing from the faraway Russian tundra.

Peregrine falcon (ssp. calidus) from Givat HaShlosha

Properly stoked about this falcon, even though it flew away quite rapidly and disappeared without a trace, we continued our way down towards the main reservoir. As we neared, we started seeing more interesting waterfowl – species that we had never seen before. First up was the common pochard, an elegant tricoloured diving duck, and then there were some ferruginous ducks with their dark, mahogany-burgundy plumage and bright white eyes. If that wasn’t enough, a black-necked grebe paddled by, its bright red eye almost startling to see.

Black-necked grebe

I was particularly excited when we found a few bobbing birds in the centre of the reservoir, as they turned out to be white-headed ducks, a much sought-after species for me. Interestingly enough, I had suspected that I may have seen a few of them in a pond on my wedding day, but was never able to confirm as the sighting happened as I was driving. In retrospect, perhaps I was mistaken back in February, but this time it was for real. The distinct brown bodies with the large white and black heads, combined with the long tail spike and big silver-grey bill make for quite a striking image.

White-headed ducks bobbing in the water

Our spirits were high as we began canvassing the northern side of the reservoir, seeing some northern lapwings flap on by – another new species for us. There was truly a whirlwind of activity around us, and it was hard focusing on one thing at a time, because there was always something to see. In the distance, we spotted flocks of storks/cranes and starlings, while ever-present around us were marsh harriers, black-shouldered kites, kestrels and other birds of prey. It was chaos, but of the very best type.

Two common pochards and a ferruginous duck

As we began to grow accustomed to the excitement, we focused more on the small songbirds that were popping in and out of sight in the nearby vegetation. There were some tits, stonechats, a bluethroat and a whole lot of chiffchaffs, small warblers which had just arrived from Eurasia. We did not find the little bunting, a local rarity that master birder Yoav Perlman had reported a few days prior.

A post-feast long-legged buzzard flying past the Gezer power station

Having reached the gate to the Gezer power station, a gas-fueled behemoth of industry, we decided to turn back and explore the fields we had passed along the way. There, we saw more buzzards – including a fierce-looking long-legged buzzard – and some more kestrels. Only realising afterwards when I was looking through the 400 pictures I had taken that day, we had also seen a handful of skylarks, a field-loving species which comes to winter in the Holy Land.

Observation platform overlooking the quarry

Our wandering took us to an oddly out-of-place observation platform overlooking a semi-defunct quarry which is also home to the Ayalon Cave nature reserve. This cave was discovered accidentally by quarry workers in 2006, and, upon exploration, was found to be Israel’s second-largest limestone cave. This immense cave, with branches extending over 2.5 kilometres below ground, contains an underground lake, sealed off from the rest of the world for eons. When the researchers explored the cave they discovered eight new species which had never yet been seen in the world, although these were all invertebrate creatures, such as crustaceans and even a newly-extinct species of blind scorpions. Unfortunately for us, this cave isn’t open to the public.

Fire-roasted frankfurters

We enjoyed the view for a few more minutes, watching the buzzards move from perch to perch down below, and then started to head back. We crossed back over Nachal Ayalon, a seasonal muddy stream at this point, and made our way back towards the underpass. Adam had brought some choice beef frankfurters and we made a quick fire for a nice and easy lunch. It amuses me that this sausage burning is becoming an adventure staple of ours, but it truly does add something magical to an already exciting day. There was the quick walk back through the fields, and a bus came to snatch us up for our return journey, bringing an end to our six-kilometre long meander.

A particularly handsome long-legged buzzard

This trip, to such a bonafide birding site, was so successful that it prompted us to hit the road two days later, when we visited another exceptional site – the fields and reservoirs of Tzora, located just outside of Bet Shemesh. The report of that exciting excursion will have to wait until the next, upcoming blog entry.

Jerusalem’s Gazelle Valley

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 29, 2020 at 11:00 AM

Practically every Monday I make the journey to Jerusalem for work at the Schocken Institute where I manage their social media accounts. Sometimes I have a hankering for some birding beforehand and so I’ll swing by the Jerusalem Bird Observatory before work. Usually it’s a pleasant time and during the course of a few visits I had seen a handful of nice new-to-me species, including the wryneck and orphean warblers. However, in early September, I began to see fantastic eBird birding reports coming from another Jerusalem location, the Gazelle Valley, and I knew my time to pay another visit had come.

Map of Gazelle Valley

I had been to the Gazelle Valley just once before, with friends Adam and Itamar in the beginning of 2018, and I hadn’t been all that impressed (see HERE). I decided that it was time to give it a fair chance, and to properly plan my visit at the earliest hour possible. A good rule of thumb for birding is to start early, because birds start early (as we all know from the popular phrase) and then disappear once the sun gets too high in the sky. Thus, armed with a good plan, I made my way to the Gazelle Valley for a nice morning visit.

A faraway whinchat

Thankfully, my experience this time was significantly more successful, starting off with a whinchat or two just perched on some thistles waiting for me to see them. The weather was cool in the park, and the sounds of songbirds filled the air, so I figured I’d start exploring the park’s perimetres straight away. A fellow birder had given me a good tip, and that was to check the fig trees in the northern end of the park for some generally elusive golden orioles. I headed that way, passing through the sweet twittering of songbirds which darted in and out of the trees around me.

A gazelle coming at me from the undergrowth

I reached the fig trees, but there were no golden orioles to be found. I hid myself out of view, hoping that maybe one would pop out, but still nothing. There were mostly yellow-vented bulbuls, and a few warblers such as blackcaps, lesser whitethroats and Sardinian warblers. Abandoning the oriole haunt, I headed back down the trail until I heard some crunching in the thick undergrowth next to me. Lo and behold, a male gazelle appeared – quite close by and somewhat tame – and then another, and another. Afterall, I was in Gazelle Valley, I should be seeing gazelles.

A spotted flycatcher blending in with the tree

My walk continued until I noticed something fast and barred flying quickly right overhead. It disappeared into a grouping of pine trees, but I was pretty sure it was a sparrowhawk. Just when I thought I had lost it in the greenery, out of the corner of my eye comes another flash of movement. It was so brief, but it was clear, the sparrowhawk had just tried to snatch a songbird out of a small tree to my right. It’s one thing seeing birds of prey, which is amazing in and of itself, but it’s a whole lot better when you see them in action.

Photographers in the blind

I continued along the reconstructed Nachal Rekafot, along the aptly-named Bird Trail, until I reached the main pondside blind. Along the way I had seen more songbirds, including a spotted flycatcher, a reed warbler and a whole bunch of blackbirds. Within the blind were a few nature photographers, waiting like lions in the tall savannah grass for prey to come their way.

Portrait of the moorhen

For the meantime, just a few moorhens dared make their presence known to us hidden in our special bunker, but then a common kingfisher came and all the photographers jumped into action, clawing at their expensive cameras as the clicking sound of the shutters filled the air.

A common kingfisher

When I looked at my own pictures later, I realised that when I had first entered the hide and started taking pictures of a moorhen that was making its way away from us, I had incidentally photographed it trying to eat a small river frog. Had the kingfisher been as successful it would have been delightful, but no, he gave up after a few minutes and flew away. I followed suit.

The moorhen escaping with the frog

My last stop along this tour of the park was at the big pond, where I could see numerous ducks and other waterbirds idling about. I pulled up a chair a safe distance away and began scanning the visible areas for one of the birds I was most hoping to see: ferruginous ducks. These medium-sized diving ducks are simplistically beautiful with their rich maroon-mahogany plumage and their bright yellow eyes. Alas, not a single ferruginous duck showed its face and I was left to photograph grebes and herons – and the occasional kingfisher.

The tranquil pond-life

The hour was getting late and I had to get to work, so I began my walk back out of the park and to the nearest bus stop. As I walked I saw a few black-winged stilts flying by – an odd sight if not for Gazelle Valley’s bountiful sources of water for them to wade in. I packed away my camera and binoculars and headed over to work where, sadly, the birds are a lot less plentiful.

Tel Abu Shusha & Nearby Sites

In Coastal Plain, Israel on November 22, 2020 at 10:58 AM

My next wild adventure took place in the end of August, when I visited the Tel Abu Shusha excavations with my friend Avner Touitou. With the annual Tel es-Safi excavations canceled due to coronavirus, our department ended up opening a brand new dig under the direction of Dr Avner Ecker. This dig, Tel Abu Shusha, is located at the western end of the Jezreel Valley, in the Ramat Menashe park on the southeastern slopes of the Carmel range. This site has been identified as Geva/Gaba, mentioned by both Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III and Roman-Jewish historian Josephus.

Tel Abu Shusha excavations (photo from drone footage filmed by the expedition)

Eager to have the chance to make a promotional video for my department, I put in all the right calls and we were expected to arrive at the site Thursday morning, towards the end of the first week of digging. I met up with Avner and we drove up to the tel, not knowing exactly where to find the crew. We wandered around a wee bit, under the watchful eyes of a kestrel and alpine swifts, until at last we found the first of the three tented dig spaces. It was joyous reuniting with old friends, as it is the members of our shared department that were the sole excavators this season – due to the exhausting coronavirus regulations.

Avner and Yaniv, an area supervisor

It was an unusual feeling visiting an archaeological excavation without feeling that I need to be physically working. I’ve been to so many digs, as academic fieldwork, volunteering and even for pay, yet this was the first time I was just a visitor, a spectator with a touristy camera. Immediately I began filming and taking pictures, already anticipating the finished video, as Avner caught up with the area supervisor. I soon found out that if one was to view all three excavation sites from above, this was the one facing north (the others facing east and southeast). The students were eager to show us that they were excavating above an exposed wall of crooked ashlars, of which they are trying to reach from above.

View of the Jezreel Valley to the east

We gradually moved on to the second dig site, a tented area overlooking the expansive Jezreel Valley, a patchwork of brown, green and blue. More friends awaited us and we joyously chatted as we examined the team’s progress in their excavated squares. It was while I was taking in the majestic view that my birder eyes spotted something fantastic. In the distance, nearly eye-level over the fields below, I could make out a handful of soaring raptors searching for prey. I took some photos to confirm that these were, in fact, short-toed eagles – about ten of them – ever so faintly visible to the naked eye. I then noticed that there were some nature photographers in cars in the valley, likely waiting for an eagle to swoop down for a kill.

The crew working hard to clear away the topsoil

Minutes and minutes of digital film were recorded as we then moved over to the central staging area tent, where communal activities such as eating and congregating are done. There we met Dr Ecker, who was delighted to see us, as well as an archaeology-loving patron named Dotan who helped fund this first season. While Dr Ecker ran off to attend to some director duties, we continued on to the third of the dig areas, the one facing southeast. This is the largest of the three and comprises two tented areas, under the supervision of yet another friendly face.

Vaulted structure atop the hill

We passed a small vaulted structure which forms a little hill between the communal tent and this area, and to the best of my knowledge, the exact history behind it is yet to be known. We explored this final area, learning more about the work being done as I poked around here and there making sure I was getting good footage. Although we were visiting just the first week, the team was making excellent headway and I look forward to seeing a report on the season whenever it shall be released. As far as excavations go, this one struck all the right chords: location, weather (breezy), interest and the most important, friendship.

Noam is another of the area supervisors

In fact, when we were finished with our visit we almost felt bad leaving as we were having such a nice time. We were greatly impressed with what we had seen, and we hoped to ourselves that the team finds something truly exciting to help push that happy feeling over the edge. Alas, we had a few more places in the area that we wanted to check out, so we bid farewell and made our way back to Avner’s car. Now would be the perfect time in the retelling of this tale to share the video I edited:

Next on our list was a nearby cave, known as the Palmach Cave as it served as a training site for some of the Palmach’s secret paramilitary units, but unfortunately it appeared to be closed without a prior reservation. We were also hoping to visit a nearby spring, to dip in cool waters, but that too seemed less available in our immediate vicinity. Determined to salvage our plans, we decided to first get lunch (schnitzel baguettes) in nearby Yokneam and then to formulate a new plan of action.

Be’er Tivon (or Tivon Well)

Satiated and ready to move on, we decided to visit a tiny watering hole that I first encountered in the army, Be’er Tivon (or Tivon Well). It was a bit of an adventure trying to reach the pit, with a small anti-cow electric fence and then the moody cows themselves, but at last we made it. However, when we gained entrance to the tiny structure – quite literally the size of a prison cell – we saw that the water was rather dirty with mud, and quite possibly contaminated by the friendly cows’ waste. Regardless, we decided to skip the dip and instead headed back to the car, past the cows and the electric fence.

“The House of the People” in Bethlehem of Galilee

Since we were so close, Avner decided to show me two places that he’s known for years (he also works as a tour guide). While I had heard of them, I had never actually been, thus this was the perfect opportunity for him to give me a quick tour of some key sites in Alonei Abba and Bethlehem of Galilee, two moshav villages established side-by-side in 1948. We started in Bethlehem of Galilee, originally a Roman and Byzantine village, which saw a revival in the 1890s when German Templers purchased the land and built stately stone houses for their colony. Alonei Abba was another Templer colony, founded in 1907 and named Waldheim. Both these colonies were cleared during WWII, the German residents expelled by the ruling British Mandate government due to their partial support of the Nazis.

Lovely architecture inside

Avner took me directly to a grand stone Templer building which is known as “The House of the People”, which was fortunately open. We entered and had a look around, seeing old moshav-life pictures hanging from the wall of this public building. Adjacent to this building is another Templer structure, an ordinary stone building with a large, round, crenellated stone tower. We did not check to see if we could enter, but rather admired it from a distance and returned to the car to continue our tour.

The Waldheim church in Alonei Abba

We drove through the moshav, impressed by the stone architecture and the large trees which formed a dense canopy over the main street. Our next destination was Alonei Abba, and Avner knew just where to go. Within minutes we were parked beside a large stone church building, of an architecture style that smacks of simplified neo-Gothic, that was originally built in 1916. I got out, took some pictures and, with that, we headed out – not failing to admire the stone houses of Waldheim as we went. I’m sure that next time I visit these two quaint locations I’ll have more to expand upon.

Pomegranates growing in Alonei Abba

Our next destination wasn’t planned, but rather decided upon in the course of discussion. I had mentioned that I had visited the magnificent necropolis of Bet She’arim back when I was a soldier, yet never visited the famous Alexander Zaid monument which is visible from the main road passing by. Avner insisted that we take a quick look, yet, we too were stymied and realised that we had made some wrong turns. Instead, we paused to look at the ancient synagogue ruins which I had missed in my trip back in February 2014.

Bet She’arim’s ancient synagogue

Getting back on the road, we decided to make one last stop before heading back, to take a quick look at Tel Zariq. It was getting quite late and time was truly running out on this day trip, but who can say no to the inviting sound of an abandoned Medieval village. What made this even more fascinating was the fact that the village was inhabited by soldiers who originated from Turkmenistan of old, and were experts in raising horses specifically for military cavalry purposes. In 1948, the village was abandoned due to the nearby battles during the War for Independence and, if what I read is correct, the villagers moved to Jenin.

Nothing to see on Tel Zariq

As exciting as this all sounds, our brief visit was a lot less riveting. Trusting the GPS to lead us to the marked site of the old village took us into thick, streamside woods of fig trees and strong vines. Strangely enough, there were quite a lot of people in this woods, in various stages of relaxation. Adults, youths and even children were scattered on empty patches of land, and on the various fallen logs and stumps, for reasons we couldn’t quite understand. Nobody seemed to acknowledge our presence, and nobody was in any danger, so we just slithered our way out of the thick undergrowth and looked around some more.

Sunrise at Tel Abu Shusha (photo from timelapse footage filmed by Esther Mellet)

Save for some broken concrete and some sun-bleached animal bones, there really wasn’t much for us to see at face value. Disheartened, yet overall satisfied with the day’s adventures, we began the long drive back to our respective homes, already hoping to plan another exciting outing.

Yavne Dunes

In Central Israel, Israel on November 15, 2020 at 5:10 PM

Now that the first rains have fallen it is time to play catch-up and retell the tales of this summer’s outings and excursions. First and foremost would be a series of visits to the dunes just outside of Yavne, a new location that Adam and I found when looking for good, local sand dunes for summer night trips. As such, our first visit to the Yavne dunes was at the end of June and it proved to be very successful.

Cheery adventurers!

Hoping to first get a lay of the land while it was still daylight, we arrived shortly before 5pm, about three hours before sunset. Firstly, we were rather impressed by the size of these dune-land, as it is far larger than even the veritable Holon dunes which hosted many a night trips. Entering the open land from the southeast, we wandered around hither and thither examining all that there was to see. Our walking took us from the tree-dotted scrubland to the dunes themselves, where the thick sand made the hiking a bit more difficult.

Yavne’s infiltration pans

Consulting Google Maps’ satellite imagery, we made our way towards a grouping of rectangular pools, which I later learned to be “infiltration pans” for the preservation of fresh water that seeps into the aquifer. Even though I looked this up, I remain slightly confused as to how and why they exist – but for our purposes, they serve as excellent bird habitats. As we climbed the sandy slopes up towards the pools, birds of all sorts were flying above us, including European bee-eaters, turtledoves, swifts, swallows and martins.

Waders wading and feeding

Cresting the hill made our presence known to all the birds in the pans, and chaos filled the air. Hundreds of ducks and waders took to the skies in confused pandemonium; it was an awesome sight for us unexpecting birders. A gazelle dashed away from behind the shelter of a tree nearby, and as we too sought shelter, the waterbirds slowly started coming back. We relaxed there in our somewhat hidden location on the east side of the pans, the slowly setting sun making it harder and harder to see the birds.

Black-winged stilts standing in liquid gold

Adapting, we looped around the southern end of the pool compound, seeing loads of snake tracks in the loose sand, until we made it to a natural bowl-like depression in the land. We took a break there, relaxing and watching the numerous warblers, turtledoves and chukar partridges below us. With the sun ever-setting, we got back up and kept hiking northward, aiming for the large sandy dune area that we had seen in the satellite images.

A ‘bowl’ in which to rest in

A large animal crashed in the undergrowth somewhere near us (later to be presumed as a wild boar as we have found droppings in the area), and we found an active porcupine den (with shed quills and all). But, the best sighting of that late afternoon was a surprise visit by a little owl, which landed not far away from us as Adam was photographing a beetle. Despite being relatively common, I find it very difficult to spot them on the regular and consider every sighting a great cause for celebration.

Rubbish photo of a little owl hiding behind some branches

At last we reached the dunes proper, and waited as the sun sank over the horizon, painting the skies beautiful pastel shades of glory. Our subsequent exploring of the dunes led us to some fun sightings, the first was a nice elegant gecko just marching his way across the endless stretches of sand. Next, we heard the distinct croaking of frogs and then we began a long walk along a sandy dirt path back towards the starting point of our visit. Scanning from side-to-side, we danced our flashlights over the scrub-covered ground hoping to see what we really came for, a snake.

Sunset over the dunes and sea

Then, as we were walking, I looked up and saw an enormous spider web spanning the width of the trail. It was illuminated accidentally by Adam’s flashlight and to make it even more fun, a rather large spider was occupying this immense web. I was already mid-step and it was too late to avoid, so I made a snap decision to just rush through, hoping that I’d avoid a spider landing on me.

Viper on the sandy path

I burst into a brief sprint and then stopped abruptly as another obstacle presented itself in my path. This time it was a viper, and I was elated to have discovered it. Adam rushed over and we spent a few minutes getting some choice photographs, but knowing that our bus was going to be coming and we really must be getting going. But no, we were in for some more surprises…

Clifford’s diadem snake striking a defensive pose

As we were making our way suddenly Adam shouted out that he found another snake – and this time it was something new. Excitement filled the air once more as we closed in on the joy-bringing serpent, taking myriads of photographs from all angles possible. This was a Clifford’s diadem snake, a slender, harmless-yet-feisty, reddish-brown creature with big friendly eyes.

Adam caught off guard

Time surely was not on our side as we reluctantly left the snake alone and hurried off to go catch our bus. We felt confident that we could find more snakes, and other interesting wildlife, and already decided to schedule another trip. However, it took nearly a month for us to get back out there, but when we did, success greeted us once again.

National nature reserve boundaries

It was the end of July and we decided to get there an hour or so before nightfall and to have a small barbecue of spicy hotdogs and marshmallows – an Adam speciality. We arrived at the dunes and were immediately wowed by a large short-toed eagle taking to the air quite close by. We found some old bottles and cans, nearly collectibles, and then had a quick gander at the infiltration pans, where we saw ibises, mallards, sandpipers and other shorebirds.

Golden hour unedited

We made a little fire with some dried branches and took in the dusk, noticing several microbats flying above us in search of juicy insects. As our dinner was coming to an end we saw something truly fantastic, a meteoroid burning up upon entering Earth’s atmosphere – an awesome firefall flying over our heads. That prompted us to start searching for creatures of the night, which we found surprisingly quickly.

Green toad

First there was a large camel spider, a fascinating creature which I first met in the Nizzana dunes, and then a green toad. More camel spiders joined the fray, and then Adam spotted what appears to have been a dice snake (which I had already seen in the Ga’aton reservoir). Next up was another viper, this one a pregnant female, and then some African fattail scorpions scurrying here and there. But the fun didn’t end there, as shortly thereafter we saw yet another viper and then some mantises, to be followed by more camel spiders.

One of the numerous African fattail scorpions

We left the dunes that night feeling downright satisfied with our new location for nighttime excursions, with each trip resulting in not one, but two snakes each. However, I had an urge to learn more about the birds frequenting the infiltration pans and desired to journey there in the morning to get a proper rundown of what there was to see. So, a few days later I took a bus down to the dunes and made a beeline for the infiltration pans.

Stints and plovers foraging in the mud

Sure enough, there was what to see and it was an honest struggle trying to photograph everything to make sure I could properly identify all that there was. Of the pans, there are the ones that were filled with water, and hosted mainly ducks, and then there were the ones filled with mud and puddles, positively overflowing with waders. I spotted sandpipers: green, wood, marsh, common; greenshanks and redshanks; stints and Temminck’s stints; ruffs; plovers: little ringed and common ringed. All that on top of the more “boring” glossy ibises, black-winged stilts and even a lone black-headed gull. In short, it was splendid.

Greenshank and redshank

While I was watching this cacophony of birds just over the fence, something small and flappy in my peripheral caught my eye. I was standing so still, so blended in with the setting, that a great spotted cuckoo didn’t even notice me as it plummeted into the sand just a few metres away. I watched breathless as it did a weird, awkward dance, bathing in the warm sand and watching the flummoxed ants that were passing by. Eventually it hopped on, no doubt looking for juicy caterpillars to feast on, and I was able to watch it on-and-off as it foraged. A few Schreiber’s fringe-fingered lizards, some snake tracks and I was on my way back home after a successful under-two-hour outing.

Great spotted cuckoo

It wasn’t enough though, and I needed to go back. One of the local birding experts, Yoav Perlman, had visited and reported seeing a rare red knot (which I tried to see with Adam last year at Ma’agan Michael). I decided I’d go for another quick morning of birding, and made my way once again – thankfully we have a direct bus. It was the end of August, about a month after my first morning visit, and after three additional night visits – these with friends (and even Bracha, my wife).

Flyer for our local community

It was a perfect opportunity for us to invite other members of the community along on an adventure of a lifetime. We had seen a lot of interesting creatures, including wild boars and more vipers but with each subsequent outing we were seeing less and less snakes. The final trip was snakeless, and I have a substantiated suspicion that the local snake-eating short-toed eagles were to blame.

Short-toed eagle looking for more snakes to eat

At any rate, I was excited to do another morning trip and arrived nice and ready for pan-scanning. There were even more waders than ever before, and my mind was truly boggled by the numbers and variety of species set out before me. Even a lone white stork was on the banks, watching the mess of small to medium sized birds scramble around in the nutrient-rich mud below.

Pair of common snipes photographed through a fence

What made this time exciting was the new species I was seeing at this site, including: common snipes, garganeys and a single yellow wagtail. Unfortunately, I did not see the red knot as I later learned that it was spotted in a different set of infiltration pans, ones that I never even thought about checking out.

We’ll miss you, Yavne dunes

The dunes, and the pans as well, served us well for the numerous trips we took over the summer. But, as autumn was ushered in, and the migration kicked into high gear, we found ourselves either homebound in lockdown, or exploring other areas which also served us well. I can only wonder what dunes we will explore come next summer when the night trips in search of snakes begin again…