Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Hula Valley

In Galilee, Israel on January 7, 2018 at 9:21 AM

The other week I attended yet another academic trip provided by the Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University. However, this trip was not dedicated to history or archaeology but rather in the pursuit of wildlife, the first of several trips associated with a wildlife class that I’ll be taking next semester. Along with my friend and brewing partner Ben, we found ourselves spending two days in the lush Hula Valley region.

Hula Valley wetlands

The first day we drove from BIU up north, directly to the southern of the two Hula Valley parks. This one is part of the Israeli Parks Authority with the standard entrance fee, whilst the other belongs to JNF/KKL and is basically free, with a suggested donation of five shekels per person to help fund the crane feeding efforts in the winter. Being that I have covered both of these parks on my blog in the previous years (HERE and HERE), I shall just touch upon our activities and the unique species sighted.

Buzzard

Disembarking at the park we were immediately treated to wildlife, with a few black kites circling over the tall eucalyptus treeline and a large flock of gulls directly overhead. Our guide and course lecturer, Dr Moshe Natan, led us over to a quiet spot to introduce us to the region and its recent revival after having been dried up in the 1950s. He informed us that these two days were to be dedicated to watching the different species of wildlife around us in their natural surroundings, going about their daily lives. With an emphasis on waterfowl, I knew that there’d be interesting things to see. Plus, the Hula Valley never disappoints.

Nutria

With the sounds and sights of small flocks of common cranes flying overhead from time to time, we began our tour. Straight away we saw an interesting sight, a small waterside tree hosting perhaps a dozen or more night herons. Then, darting about with quick dives into the murky waters, a common kingfisher made a nice show. But my attention was arrested by the presence of a marsh harrier which made close flybys, searching for prey in both water and grass.

Marsh harrier hunting

I had received a pair of 7×50 binoculars from Dr Natan, which made it much easier to track and watch wildlife. However, when the opportunity arose, I picked up my camera and captured the moment in a more permanent form. Within the first half hour or so I had already seen two waterfowl species, new ones for me–a shoveler and a gadwall. One thing that I love about wildlife-rich places such as the Hula Valley is that there is always what to see, you just need to be aware of your surroundings and be prepared for anything.

Watching wildlife

Next we checked a bat box, which was empty, and then the lecturer taught us about pellets, showing us samples picked off the ground. Likely belonging to a kestrel, the regurgitated pellets contained identifiable insect parts. Moving on, we spied on several species of herons and egrets and even spotted a black-shouldered kite on a tree several hundred metres to the east. My next special sighting was a little grebe, diving into the water in the company of coots and mallards.

Cormorant’s interesting wings

Moving along nicely, we entered an open area with a large muddy patch populated by waders and wagtails. There I added a few more new species, including a common snipe and Eurasian widgeon. A hefty wild boar popped out of the thickets up ahead of us, only to disappear once it saw us watching it. But the greatest sighting of the day, and of the entire year thus far if I’m to be honest, was that of a white-tailed eagle… I was scanning the horizons with my naked eyes, and spotted a dark dot atop a tree some 700 metres to the west. I got a closer look with the binoculars but that wasn’t enough – all I was able to decipher was that I was looking at a dark-coloured bird of prey. I found one of the two spotting scopes and sighted it. At this point I was torn between the likely and the unlikely: it was either a buzzard, which is very common in the winter, or a white-tailed eagle, of which there are very few in Israel, and in the world at large.

White-tailed eagle (L21)

I consulted our guide and he uttered the words I was too hesitant to say myself: white-tailed eagle. Not only an impressive and huge bird, this one had a shoulder tag marking it as L21. When I reported the sighting to the birding group on Facebook I was informed that this L21 was a female born in Ireland in 2011 and was brought to Israel as part of a rehabilitation program. She recently raised two young, one that fell out of the nest and was killed by jackals, the other fledgling successfully.

Learning about waterfowl

Needless to say, it was hard to continue on with the tour after such an incredible find. Yet we persevered and walked through the reeds to the lake blind where we were treated to the scene of hundreds of birds in and above the water. The majority were cormorants and gulls, but there was the occasional pelican and even a spoonbill. Far across the lake we spotted a water buffalo, also reintroduced to the area after local extinction following the marsh’s drying in the 1950s.

Entranced students watching a nutria eat

Looping back around the way we came, we took a few minutes to watch a nutria feeding on plant stalks. The nutria, also known as a coypu, is a large rodent species that was brought over from South America to be harvested for their fur. Eventually that program was abandoned and the nutrias made their way to the wetlands where they live happy, albeit somewhat destructive, lives.

Wooded setting of the field school

Back at the bus we boarded and were driven up to Kiryat Shmona, at the base of Tel Barom, where we were let out to buy groceries for the evening. Ben and I tried climbing the tel to see if there was anything interesting to see but the way was tricky and we abandoned our efforts. We were then driven to the Hermon Field School in Kibbutz Snir where we were to spend the night. Much to our surprise we were all alone in the big place, and Ben and I ended up splitting a small cottage, each of us getting our own room.

Our dwelling for the night

Because it was the second night of Hanukkah, we held several candle-lighting ceremonies and then we ate dinner. Afterwards, at the end of the evening lecture about the importance and purpose of vernal pools in nature, Ben announced to me that there was the Geminids meteor shower that night. Of all nights to have a meteor shower, we were in the perfect setting. Determined to catch it, we explored the compound looking for the darkest place to properly view the night sky. But then, adventure struck, and we found ourselves with a few other members of our tour hopping the fence and journeying down to Nachal Banias below. It was a fun little excursion and we ended up seeing several shooting stars, some rather impressive. After some stargazing we headed back into the compound, passing an interestingly pigmented green toad, and went to sleep.

Green toad

The next morning began quite early with praying, eating, and a short tour of “woodland” birds seen within the compound. Our first destination of the day was the fish ponds at Lahavot HaBashan, where we sat as a small, compact group to observe the nature around us. There were predominately common species, which we had seen the day before, but there were a few nice sightings including a squacco heron and a family of mongooses crossing the dirt road near us.

Yellow-legged gull

Just for kicks, Ben and I brought bottles of cold Leffe Brown with us, opening them whilst sitting on the ground watching gulls and herons. After the beers we, as a group, got up and began a short walking tour of the fish ponds. Passing along an overgrown water channel we startled both a golden jackal in its lush winter coat as well as a marsh harrier that was busy eating a fish. Other fun sightings included another black-shouldered kite, a few dead turtles and the bones and feathers of a dead pelican or two.

Empty turtleshell

Back on the bus we headed straight for the other of the Hula Valley parks, Agamon Hula operated by the JNF/KKL. Having a quick lunch first at the visitors centre, we regrouped on our bus and entered the park along the paved roads. To my delight, I noticed that the birds seemed less afraid of us and allowed us to get much closer than I would have even gotten on-foot. But, there was a drawback, and that was trying to take photographs through the dirty bus windows.

Overlooking the lake

My favourite birds to see so close-up were the common buzzards, of which there were several. At one point there were two buzzards on the banks of a water channel just alongside us, it was such a surprise that it took me a few seconds to register their presence. Some minutes later, while overlooking the main lake, we took in the sights of the many species of waterbirds, and the birds of prey providing a constant threat from the sky. On the far side of the lake, we visited a fallen tree, where eagles are known to perch. Sunset was approaching and I was able to take this photo of a greater spotted eagle in the light of “golden hour”.

Greater spotted eagle at sunset

Even with darkness incoming there were still a few things yet to see. All throughout the evening, and particularly with the onset of dusk, the tens of thousands of common cranes were making their way to the bodies of water to spend the night. The sounds of their calls filled the air, transporting us to a seemingly different world, as the sun sank over the Naftali mountains to the west.

Dusk with the cranes

At last it was dark and the cranes fell silent, but there was still more to see. Every so often we’d catch sight of a small fluttering shape against the sky, easily deciphered as bats. These were tiny microbats, feeding on the many mosquitos in the wetlands, identified as Kuhl’s pipistrelles by our guide. Bringing the tour to a close was a quick visit to a peculiar pipe protruding from the ground, which, when the valve is opened, release natural methane gas produced by the decaying organic matter beneath the surface. Standing in the darkness we were soon greeted by the gift of light when our guide ignited the tapped gas, and sufficiently illuminated, we learned about this natural resource as a theoretical energy source. With that we boarded the bus once again and off we drove, to the busy city life of the country’s centre, bringing a close to yet another fantastic trip with many memorable moments.

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Tel Goded Archaeological Survey II

In Israel, Judea on December 31, 2017 at 8:36 AM

Continuing with the four-week long archaeological survey with the academic staff and students of Bar Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, we returned once again to Tel Goded. Located in the Judean lowlands, not far from Beit Guvrin and Tel Burna, the tel hosts mountaintop settlements ranging from the Bronze Era all the way until the Byzantine times. Our mission was to conduct a surface-area survey to aid in assessing the site’s value from an archaeological standpoint.

Tel Goded survey staff members (photo Boaz Zissu)

Leading the team was Prof Boaz Zissu, Dr Amit Dagan and Shira Albaz, the latter two also staff members at the Tel es-Safi archaeological dig. We arrived at the site on the third week and convened to have the weekly briefing before beginning to work. Thankfully, I was reassigned to the small cave-finding team and I set out with friends Eitan and Amichai in search of more hidden caves.

Overlooking a collapsed area

But first, a quick mentioning of some flora and fauna that were seen that morning: after a few rains, especially with that of the previous week’s, the hill experienced a change that would be even more noticeable the following week. What had first been a blanket of dead, yellow-brownish vegetation had morphed into a sea of grassy green. Small clusters of Steven’s meadow saffron dotted the hill, particularly on the summit, making for lovely photograph opportunities. In addition, I spotted a nice great grey shrike on my hike up the slope and the usual fare of robins and stonechats.

Steven’s meadow saffron

Without delay we struck out for the caves, and found what we were looking for. Inside one, we found traces of modern human and porcupine as well as curious archaeological remains. We slipped in and out of the different holes and cracks that we found on the hillside, working our way south and having a ball. At the bottom of the slope at the southern end of the hill we came across the ancient, underground water channels carved into the rock. I climbed down into one, with the aid of a pre-existing ladder, and tried to make out how far I could see underground.

Underground water channel

Continuing along, scouring the area for caves, we found another part of the underground water system as well as a broken tortoise shell. Out in the field we discussed whether or not it was likely to have been broken by an eagle, several species known for lifting tortoises high in the air and then dropping them down on a rocky surface to break into their formidable shells. However, when I asked the experts, I learned that this shell looks like it was cracked open by the powerful jaws of a striped hyena, an apex predator that roams the Holy Land.

Tortoise shell

The day was coming to an end and the three of us found ourselves near the pick-up location for our minibus, but with the rest of the team still up on the tel. We seized the opportunity to explore and returned to the Roman-age ruins that we had begun exploring the week before. We found large water cisterns and better-known burial caves, as well as more Bar Kochba bunker tunnels carved into the bedrock.

Let’s explore!

We entered one particularly windy one, with many turns to help defend against possible intruders, and found a hidden columbarium at the end—hidden in the sense that the upper entrance had been sealed off in antiquity and access can be gained only by crawling through a tight tunnel. I found the discovery to be most charming, even though the site is no secret from the general public.

Columbarium

At last we left our hidden columbarium, crawled back through the tight tunnel and headed downhill to the minibus. We were to be coming back to Tel Goded for the final survey day the following week and return we did. The green growth after the few rains had further transformed the hill and the surface-searching became more difficult as the bare ground disappeared beneath the vegetation.

Final day on Tel Goded

But before we got to work, we had a small breakfast laid out before us to eat, provided by the department’s patron Yehuda. Often accompanying us on extended trips and other such events, Yehuda never fails to bring food, drinks and smiles to the staff and students as he treats us when we need it most.

Yehuda bringing breakfast

Because the cave expedition was largely over with, I was reassigned to the teams searching for surface finds. Being that this was the final day of the survey, we were now tackling the lowest level of the hilltop, and each section was entrusted with a few team members. I was reunited with Itamar and Avner from the first week, and together we kicked about looking for interesting finds.

European green toad

While we didn’t find a terribly impressive amount of potsherds and other items of antiquity, we did find a broken digital camera, and when we took it back with us, we found that the photos within belonging to a schoolgirl and dated back to 2011. In addition, we found a cool blister beetle armed with a poisonous chemical for self-defense and an ocellated skink hiding under a rock. As far as potsherds go, I picked up one interesting piece that had part of a classic Byzantine cross on it, definitely an unique find surface-level.

Byzantine potsherd

Just as we were finishing up, sweeping our eyes over the last unsearched swathes of land, there was another interesting find – this time a glass Tempo bottle, covered in plastic to safeguard against accidental breakage. Even though the bottle is only thirty or so years old, it was interesting to see such an old-looking bottle, something that nearly belongs in a museum.

Moment of relaxation

At last the survey came to an end, and an idea was voiced: perhaps, in the spirit of Hanukkah, we could all pose in the shape of a hanukkiah (or what is also known as a menorah). We did the best we could to replicate the iconic shape, and here it is:

Group photo

We then packed up all the gear and prepared ourselves for the descent back down the tel. I rode with Prof Zissu, and we took a cute selfie as we navigated the jeep down the uncertain mountain path.

Jeeping selfie

It was the end of my first archaeological survey, and I had quite the experience taking part in it. Due to our efforts, we have significant insights into the historical aspects of Tel Goded, assisting further research and enabling a more accurate planning of future endeavours. Hopefully there will be more surveys in the future to accompany the many academic trips that we as a university take several times a month.

Tel Goded Archaeological Survey I

In Israel, Judea on December 24, 2017 at 8:50 AM

Having recently completed a four-week archaeological survey of Tel Goded with staff and students of Bar Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, I hereby present an accounting of the first two weeks. Despite the fact that it was a four-week survey, us archaeology students only actively surveyed one day per week, so this report is summarising two days worth of activity. We started off the first week with a mini-bus ride from the university to the site itself, located just a few kilometres northeast of Beit Guvrin-Maresha, and disembarked.

View from Tel Goded

We looked up at the hill facing us, curious what was in store, as the other members of the team gathered around to meet us beside an old fenced-off well. Prof Boaz Zissu was leading the survey with Dr Amit Dagan and his assistant Shira Albaz, the former specialising in Classical archaeology and the two latter in Bronze and Iron Ages archaeology. Without too much fanfare, the bulk of us climbed into 4×4 off-road vehicles and rode up the hill, the rest enjoying the ascent powered by their own legs.

Dr Amit Dagan and Prof Boaz Zissu

Up top, a shade tent was set up and we all gathered around for a briefing to understand what the day (and subsequent weeks) were to entail. To simplify things, and to preserve the academic findings for the forthcoming reports, I will just touch upon our work very briefly.

Canaanite flint sickle blade

The shape of the hill’s top, three plateaus descending northward, is the site of an old city which crowned the hill from the Bronze age to the Roman times. In 1900 the upper plateau, the old acropolis, was excavated by archaeologists Bliss and Macalister under the watchful eye of the Ottomans, and then covered up as per their instructions.

Anthropomorphic agricultural installation

Our survey’s goal was to examine the hilltop as best as we could, gathering up any evidence that we can find (mainly potsherds) with the addition of measurement- and elevation-takings. It was my duty that day was to scour a particular plot of land with the company of two friends, Avner and the frequently mentioned Itamar.

Surveying the acropolis

We scanned the dry ground, with its dry vegetation, and picked up a fair amount of potsherds. It was relaxing work and there were only a few nature distractions that day, the highlights being a swallowtail butterfly, a harrier of sorts and a juvenile sparrowhawk that flew past me at eye level.

Swallowtail butterfly

At the end of the day, sometime around 3pm, we all gathered together to summarise the day and to examine the finds. The most interesting finds were those of several team members that had been tasked with locating and surveying caves on the hillside. One cave, its entrance hidden by a dense bush, contained in it sleeping bags and empty food cans. This was a base camp for antiquity looters, and they had left behind a fair amount of nearly complete ceramic vessels which excited us greatly. The day ended with a jeep ride back down the tel, and we looked forward to continuing the survey.

My findings for the day

The following week was a rainy one, and the day of the survey was no exception. We arrived at Tel Goded and I decided that this time I’d walk up to further appreciate the site and to perhaps catch some bird or animal unawares for a nice photograph or two. I saw only chukars but, when convening to discuss the daily plan, I was told that I could join the cave-searching team–news that filled me with joy.

Winter day on the tel

I joined my friends Ogen and Eitan and together we set off down the hillside in search for caves, ignoring the occasional drizzling from the heavens. We found caves, which made us ecstatic in our findings. Ancient burial caves, broken into and looted, were found in the most unlikely places, sometimes hidden underfoot.

Searching for caves

It’s difficult to put the sheer joy of “discovering” a burial cave (albeit looted) into words, but believe our enthusiasm when I say we raced from hole to hole eager to slip inside to uncover a hidden world.

Slipping into yet another hidden cave

To make the experience even more exciting, there were some interesting animals to be seen within the caves. A Montpellier snake was spotted in one cave, and two different horseshoe bat species were found in another.

Horseshoe bat

Due to our excitement and perseverance, we ditched lunch and continued in our work, eager to keep exploring. Every minute counted, because when we found a cave we’d have to enter it to take photographs and GPS coordinates. Here’s an example of an empty burial cave that we found several of, each having a specific look or identifying feature:

Within one of the ancient burial caves

At last we had to finish up and meet the rest of the team coming down from the tel, but seeing that we were early, Eitan and I snuck off to the Roman-age ruins, a very popular site for school groups. We found classic Bar Kokhba rock-carved tunnels and a columbarium which was sealed off from the outside, accessible only via the narrow tunnel through which we crawled.

Exploring the inside of a columbarium

Leaving some more ruins to be explored next time, we met up with the rest of the survey team and heard a crazy story about them assisting the Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors in catching two young Arab looters red-handed, searching for ancient coins on the acropolis with a metal detector. After hearing the gripping tale, we took the minibus back to Bar Ilan University, looking forward to return again to this promising hill.