Israel's Good Name

Jerusalem: Ramot Forest

In Israel, Jerusalem on February 19, 2017 at 7:02 AM

The other week, on the Friday before Tu B’Shvat, I went on a nice guided tour of the Ramot Forest in northwest Jerusalem with my friend Adam Ota. Provided by Ramot for the Environment, a group dedicated to preserving the natural areas outside the Ramot neighbourhoods, this trip was under the guidance of Hilary Herzberger, a local resident and activist, and Shmulik Yedvab, a zoologist from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (or, SPNI).

Ramot Forest with Ramot in the background

Ramot Forest with Ramot in the background

We gathered that morning at an interesting hedgehog-themed childrens park and then had an introductory talk before setting off into the urban-surrounded wilderness. We were all expecting to get a glimpse of the seventy or so mountain gazelles that call the park home, yet there was much more to be seen. We started off with glimpses of Eurasian jays, Persian cyclamens and then the upturned dirt mounds of an subterranean mole-rat in the area wooded with pine trees.

Persian cyclamens

Persian cyclamens

Leaving the pine trees, we ventured onto a dirt trail skirting the terraced land with planted olive tree saplings. Recently I learned that a large portion of the land surrounding Jerusalem is terraced for agricultural purposes, hard work done throughout history. Shmulik informed us that he had scouted ahead and found a small herd of gazelles, which we were heading to see, but paused along the way to show us elongated heart-shaped tracks in the soft orange-brown dirt.

Shmulik Yedvab showing us gazelle tracks

Shmulik Yedvab showing us gazelle tracks

We learned about a project that Shmulik was involved in with the setting up of trail cams in this area to document local fauna, with an infrared option for nighttime documentation. What surprised the researchers the most was the discovery of wild boars, which is interesting because wild boars are quite common is many parts of the country, yet hadn’t been spotted in this area before the trail cam footage reveal.

Branched asphodel

Branched asphodel

It was shortly after this that I pieced together who he was, and that I’ve been seeing his posts on the Israel wild mammals Facebook group for a good while now. Only three days before this trip, Shmulik posted a trail cam video clip with footage of a Blanford’s fox – an extremely elusive fox species that was only discovered in Israel in 1981, somewhere out in the Negev wilderness (see HERE). Speaking of videos, there’s a beautiful nature video of this very area from two winters ago, filmed by the talented Amir Balaban, naturalist and founder of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (see the video HERE).

Our group of wildlife enthusiasts

Our group of wildlife enthusiasts

It was along this trail that Hilary pointed out the parasitic mistletoe adorned some of the trees. There was a bush fire a year or two before and, as a result, many of the trees were burnt and mistletoe seized the opportunity to flourish. Despite being Tu B’Shvat, and the plethora of blossoming seen all around the country, most of the almond trees that we saw were burnt beyond repair, some with burnt almonds adorning their blackened branches. Approaching the terraces on the right, with pine trees on the left, we spotted the small herd of gazelles grazing – with the dominant male on guard.

Gazelles on the move

Gazelles on the move

We learned about the importance of staying on the trails with these skittish creatures – and a tragic incident when a photographer ventured too close and scared off a male gazelle which “escaped” into the territory of a different male, and thereby met his death. We didn’t scare off any gazelles right then and there, but I did notice a fine looking male chaffinch in the pine trees.

Male chaffinch among the pinecones

Male chaffinch among the pine cones

Continuing around to skirt the Neftuach lookout, we passed a few chukars, fennel plants and other interesting flora before reaching the end of the trail, with a view of the new rail bridge for the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line, passing over Nachal Soreq.

Flushed chukar

Flushed chukar

To the right of the bridge in the Arab village of Beit Iksa, which we learned may have been named after the Roman Tenth Legion (or, Legio X in the original Latin) – the name meaning “House of Iksa” in Arabic, and “Iksa” meaning “X”.

New rail bridge entering Jerusalem

New rail bridge entering Jerusalem

It was there that we said farewell to Shmulik and Hilary, and were taken over by another guide to see ancient ruins in the so-called Biblical Garden, in the pine forest area. We started with the first of six winepresses that date to the First Temple period – approximately 2,500 years ago. To make matters even more exciting, a Hasmonean coin was found in this particular winepress when rock-clearing was done to clean up the site.

Winepress

Winepress

The group settled down to hear more about the site, but Adam and I were still itching to get our adventure on. So we asked for directions and parted from our group to hike on over to the next site: the abandoned village of Lifta. But, before that, we owe a great thanks to Ramot for the Environment for providing us with a great morning trip full of wildlife sightings and information – we wish them much success in their ongoing battle with housing development projects in keeping the park a wildlife sanctuary, like the way it is now.

BIU Campus Birding Tour

In Central Israel, Israel on February 5, 2017 at 9:06 AM

The week before last, Bar Ilan University’s campus chapter of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) offered a free birding tour. Naturally, I went along, and experienced the unexpected, much to my satisfaction. Being that BIU’s campus is situated in a very urban area, tucked between Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak and more, I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than what I see on a semi-frequent basis walking around. In due time we were introduced to our birder tour guide, Shuki Cheled, and we set off to explore the campus, with its overcast skies.

Birding outside the Psychology building

Birding outside the Psychology building

While some of us were equipped with cameras and binoculars, Shuki used just his eyes and ears to identify birds in the vicinity. At first pickings were poor, with common and invasive species such as hooded crows, laughing doves, house sparrows and common mynas. But then, a few stonechats were spotted, posing as they do, and then an uncharacteristically-bold hoopoe – Israel’s national bird.

Hoopoe & Chaffinch

Hoopoe & Chaffinch

Pausing at the Brain Research Centre, we spotted an unusual species perched on a rock some ten or so metres away. Shuki seized binoculars and I ventured into risky digital zoom to discover what was determined to be a dunnock (or hedge warbler, as I’ve heard from my Hula Valley Birding Tour experience). Flitting restlessly overhead was a chiffchaff, a tiny bird weighing only about seven grams (or .30 oz). I was able to catch him taking a tiny break on the trunk of a palm tree:

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Entering the Dahan park, with its fruit trees and flowing water, we were greeted by a number of bird species. Highlights included chaffinches, greenfinches, monk parakeets and small flocks of starlings – a seemingly simple bird, but with stunning plumage up-close. While the group exchanged birding thoughts and observations I nipped over to an orange tree and picked a juicy orb, which turned out being exceedingly tart.

Monk parakeets

Monk parakeets

With the tour reaching its hour-long time limit, the official tour ended and only a few stayed on with Shuki, including your truly. But first, an amazing photo capturing a wide range of activities and emotions by Faith Baginsky.

Hark! (photo Faith Baginsky)

Hark! (photo Faith Baginsky)

We next paused at the gravelly parking area in the Engineering and Technology regions, spotting a group of jackdaws (which I automatically assumed were “boring” hooded crows). Next, taking a few steps forward, I flushed out a whole bunch of stone curlews who were standing mere metres away yet completely camouflaged. Here I caught one trying to hide behind a lamppost:

Stone curlew

Stone curlew

Continuing along the campus road, we saw a whole assortment of birds I would have never noticed beforehand, despite the fact that I consider myself an amateur birder. Standing behind some tall bushes we were able to watch chaffinches (the males have really nice plumage) and hoopoes from an eye-level vantage point. Then, as the tour continuation was coming to an end we saw what seemed to be Spanish sparrows and then another invasive species from India, the vinous-breasted starling, far less prevalent than its cousin, the common myna. I was able to procure this stellar photograph of the starling perched on a barbed wire fence by fellow tour participant Ami Vardi.

Vinous-breasted starling (photo Ami Vardi)

Vinous-breasted starling (photo Ami Vardi)

The overcast skies had darkened and the first drops of rain began to fall upon us, threatening our birding equipment. Content with the twenty-something species we’d seen and identified, I bid farewell to the remaining members and set off to my next activity of the day, bottling my latest batch of beer, IPAeus I.

video

Shortly after the writing of this blog, a video of our birding tour was publicised by the Bar Ilan University Spokesman office, just click on the photo above or see the video HERE.

 

University Trip: Arava III

In Israel, Negev on January 29, 2017 at 11:40 AM

Wrapping up our two-day trip to the Arava (I & II) under the behest of Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department, we found ourselves leaving the gorgeous Timna Park and headed for our next destination: Tamar. A slightly obscure site that still found itself maintaining importance for thousands of years, Tamar is located alongside the kibbutz-cum-settlement of Ir Ovot in the northern part of the Arava (20km from the Dead Sea). Arriving sleepily at Tamar after the bus ride, we disembarked and prepared ourselves for a long tour of the site. We started at the northern corner, a corner tower of the ancient Israelite fortress.

Tamar the desert fortress

Tamar the desert fortress

Just to give a quick historical summary: Tamar was first established as an fortress by the Israelites, becoming a site of regional importance due to its strategic location and control over the freshwater spring. Tamar was expanded from fortress to fortified city over the following two hundred years or so. The city was abandoned after the Babylonian conquest of the Holy Land, to be taken control of by the Nabatean hundreds of years later, using it as a fortified stop on their Incense Route. In the 200-300s CE the Romans built their own fortress and bathhouse on the site, among other buildings.

Prof Aren Maeir speaking from within the ruins

Prof Aren Maeir speaking from within the ruins

There was then a period of general disuse and eventually the site became the location for a British Mandate police station; a drinking trough built to water their horses coming in from dry desert rides. In modern times, a group came to settle the south and built a small community next to the expansive ruins, naming it Ir Ovot. An organisation named Blossoming Rose, a non-profit based out of the USA, has undertaken restoration and conservation efforts to make the site the pleasant place it is to visit today.

Yours truly exploring the ruins (photo Yehushua Lavy)

Yours truly exploring the ruins (photo Yehushua Lavy)

Leaving my group to explore on my lonesome, I walked from the northern corner to the western corner, under the waving Israeli and American flags. On the way, I entered the modern military bunker, with explanatory photographs and maps on the walls in the simple underground room. From the western corner I swung southeast along the excavated city walls. I paused briefly to photograph a small drab bird that was flitting about a tree – a streaked scrub warbler. Dropping down a level I found myself looking at a large, impressive jujube tree.

Ancient jujube tree

Ancient jujube tree

Despite the popular rumours that this particular tree is over 2,000 years old, the tree is indeed old, but a more logical 500 or so years old, or so I believe. Skirting the decked trunk, I walked out the see the Roman bath ruins, reminding me of the intricate ruins at Bet Shean and Caesaria that I’d seen the previous years.

Roman bathhouse floor

Roman bathhouse floor

From the Roman ruins I walked over to a model version of the Israelite mishkan (temporary temple before the First Temple), a tribute to the possibility that the mishkan once stood at this very site (biblically known as Ovot). From the mishkan model I found myself approaching the British Mandate concrete drinking trough with its engraved Arabic graffiti; water being fed in via a duct stemming from the large well metres from the jujube tree.

Water for the British horses

Water for the British horses

Passing the through fortress ruins I spent a few futile minutes trying to photograph sunbirds feeding on a flowering bush with the blurred backdrop of the tour company.

Waiting for sunbirds...

Waiting for sunbirds…

Walking back out to the site’s perimeter, I retraced the steps of my colleagues and entered the main gate of the Israelite fortress. From the Israelite fortress I examined the ruins of a Roman cistern and interesting building strata. Rejoined with the group at the British police station, I enjoyed their company until we ended the tour, heading back to the buses for a quick drive over to the final stop on our two-day trip: the Vidor visitor centre at Moshav Hatzeva.

Vidor visitor centre

Vidor visitor centre

Being that the Arava is an unlikely yet highly successful agricultural centre in Israel, a visitor centre was opened to educated the general public as to the techniques and tribulations of desert agriculture. We learned that these days Russia is the biggest importer of Arava-grown citrus fruits, which are interestingly sweeter due to the slightly salty water pumped from desert wells (a form of compensation of sorts). At the culmination of the slide-show lecture we were taken outside to the greenhouses to be taught more, with demonstrations of flower genders and talks of pollination.

Learning about blossoms at dusk

Learning about blossoms at dusk

Unfortunately, the sun was slowly sinking over the horizon and it was hard to get many decent photos of the greenhouse fun that we had. With the classic desert night chill setting in, the Archaeology department’s volunteer hero swooped in with hot drinks and soups to both warm and nourish us before our long drive back to the Tel Aviv area, the end of yet another successful educational trip provided for us by Bar Ilan University.