Israel's Good Name

Jerusalem Bird Observatory

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 26, 2017 at 8:16 AM

A few weeks ago, before all the fun of Purim, I took another trip to Jerusalem with my friend Adam Ota, and this time his brother Daniel tagged along. We were headed for the Jerusalem Bird Observatory to watch the morning bird ringing, but unfortunately had a later start then planned. Arriving in Jerusalem, we walked into the Government complex, passing by the Supreme Court of Israel and then one of the entrances to the Knesset when we turned off-road. Right there, nestled in the trees and rose bushes, is the Jerusalem Bird Observatory with its ringing station for bird identifications and record tracking.

Jerusalem Bird Observatory

Since we arrived a tad late the ringing was over but we were shown into the centre by Sara Dudovitz, a friend of my family, where we watched a short film comprised of footage of wildlife in urban Jerusalem. Amir Balaban, the director of JBO and consummate nature videographer (see his YouTube videos HERE), made an appearance and then was off. After the short film I marveled at the minute size of a stuffed little owl and we were then given a short tour of the closed ringing station.

Springtime blossoming

Looking out the big picture windows, I spotted my first lesser whitethroat hopping about on the ground twenty or so metres away. Moments later, a Syrian woodpecker landed on a nearby tree and began examining it – followed by a great tit flitting by. Convinced that this was the place to be, I intended to settle in for some birding, but Sara knew better and took us to an even better spot – the observation room with its open windows to a small nature area with a tiny waterfall and pond.

Peering into nature

Armed with my camera and its 21x optical zoom, I joined Adam and his old Russian military monocular in scouring the outlying views of our post for birds. I was amazed at the sheer quantity of wildlife mere metres away; blackbirds, European robins, greenfinches, a white-breasted kingfisher and two Caspian turtles basking at the waters edge.

White-breasted kingfisher

As I was watching a whole bunch of sparrows, chaffinches and greenfinches feeding in the grass 2-3 metres away, I noticed that there was one who didn’t fit in. It was a bird I had never seen before, and it took me only a few seconds to realise what it must be: a female brambling. Minutes later it was joined by a male brambling, a songbird of striking plumage. My photos didn’t turn out too amazing so I was fortunate to secure a nearly identical (yet far superior) one from talented photographed Ilan Ramati who visited the JBO on the following day.

Brambling (photo Ilan Ramati)

Shortly thereafter, as the three of us continued to notice new birds appearing in our field of view, one of the women who work at the JBO went out to refill the seeds in the bird-feeders and to string fresh lines of peanuts. Keeping my camera focused on one of the bird-feeders I tried time and again to capture a great tit snatching sunflower seeds, but to no avail. I did, however, catch this Eurasian jay perched on the peanut line moment before he wrestled one off for consumption.

Eurasian jay

One of my favourite songbirds, the European robin, was only spotted in the shade to the right side of the observation deck which made it hard to photograph. I adore how despite their dumpiness and overall simpleton demeanor, their warbling song is commendable to say the least. And so we stayed in the observation deck for a couple more minutes before popping on to the living roof – the first one in Israel – and then departing via Gan Sacher, the backside of the JBO preserve.

Almond blossom

We saw an interesting thorny tree and the plentiful blossoming of anemones, Persian cyclamens and almond trees as well as a few jackdaws as we walked out of the park. We were headed for Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) where we had a lunch of pasta before heading to East Jerusalem, in search for archaeological wonders.

Lifta

In Israel, Jerusalem on March 5, 2017 at 6:27 AM

Continuing from our tour of the Ramot Forest in northern Jerusalem, where we saw gazelles and ancient winepresses, my friend Adam and I headed for the nearby ruined village of Lifta. Located just outside the main western entrance of Jerusalem, between Roads 1 and 50, the abandoned houses and buildings belong most recently to an Arab village.

Lifta from afar

Lifta from afar below modern Jerusalem

First, the village was a Jewish one by the name of Mei Neftoach during the time of the First Temple, and was subsequently destroyed by the Romans under Titus and Vespasian. During the Byzantine period settlement resumed, the village going by the name Nephtho – changing to Clepsta under Crusader rule. Lifta reached its peak in the late 1880s and since the 1950s the ruins have just been a part of the landscape, good for both tourist and research purposes.

Almond blossoms

Almond blossoms

Walking down from the Ramot area, we passed a few blossoming almond trees as well as a few startled gazelles and some songbirds. After the Tur Sinai farm we made our way across the land bridge over Road 1 with a vantage point of the stone ruins of Lifta on the opposite hillside. Winding down the backroads, we passed a playground park and then found the offroad path to Lifta, with its blue trail marker.

Interesting trail marker

Interesting trail marker

We stopped every so often to take photographs of the beautiful blossoming almond trees dotting the hillside. Shortly we were walking below the houses and buildings of the northern end of Lifta, yet we continued on until we found a better place to climb up.

Lifta

Lifta

We started with a house and then the olive mill – unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a straightforward source to identify what the different structures are, although some are obvious. In my searches for site identifications I found a really interesting collection of 3D scans of a handful of Lifta’s structures (see HERE).

Inside the olive mill

Inside the olive mill

Standing at the northern end of the old village’s nucleus, we were surrounded by stone walls, almond trees, cacti and an abundance of green grass growing everywhere. Within the village we explored the lower street heading north, so overgrown that we passed over, around and even through houses to progress further.

Exploring the ruins

Exploring the ruins

Pausing every now and then to marvel at the magnificence of the ruins, as well as the spotting of a black redstart perched on a nearby tree, we eventually made it to the end of the lower street area and climbed up to the upper street area, where a formidable building with ornate lintel inscriptions commanded our attention. If I’ve understood the Israel Antiquities Authority’s report correctly, the building is Ottoman era built on more ancient wall foundations, perhaps Crusader.

Looking out the windows

Looking out the windows

Entering the upper floor of the building we found the encampment of a homeless, but no homeless in sight. One of the things that we noticed in many of the two-floored structures was a large hole in the ceiling/floor – probably intentional to discourage potential dwellers. Reading antiquity reports, I learned that most of the two-floored houses in Lifta were of the “traditional rural house” design: the bottom floor for storage and livestock, the upper floor for the human residents.

The view from Lifta looking west

The view from Lifta looking west

Making our way back to the village nucleus along the upper street, we explored the various structures and then headed for the other half of the northern end of village. We looked down at one particularly interesting building with a grassy roof, which may have been the village’s mosque. With so many more impressive buildings it seems unusual that this would be a mosque, but the village mosque is described as a one-story structure with a walled courtyard, such as this one. We didn’t venture inside, so I wasn’t able to confirm with the presence of a mihrab (prayer niche).

Interestingly overgrown building

Interestingly overgrown building

Bearing in mind that it was Friday afternoon and we still had to get back to Givat Shmuel before Shabbat, we decided to put some pep in our step and breezed past many interesting – and curiously impressive looking – structures.

Too sunny for proper smiles

Too sunny for proper smiles

At one point I commented that it felt like we were walking through a medieval village, just without the people, the noise and the most likely offensive smell. One grassy set of stairs going uphill really found favour in my eyes.

Grassy stairs

Grassy stairs

Before long the dirt trail turned into one of stone tiles and we noticed water gurgling to the right of us. Up ahead we set eyes on the famous Lifta spring, with its two pools. The outer pool was covered in a green layer of duckweed, with floating trash here and there. The inner pool was relatively clean with a small stream of water emanating from a walled spring, where some youth were preparing to swim.

Spring of Lifta

Spring of Lifta

We didn’t have enough time to explore the western side of the village, but thankfully the bulk of the interesting sites were where we were. From the spring we took the road up to Jerusalem, climbing at a rather steep angle to reach the road. Feeling a mite peckish, we then walked to the Central Bus Station and got schwarma wraps before catching the absurdly packed bus back to Givat Shmuel an hour of so before Shabbat began. Stay tuned for our next Jerusalem adventure!

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.