Thursday, February 26, 2009

#380 Quarry visit

Milk thistle foliage- Silybum marianum, taken by Moshe. It really look like it has milk flowing in its veins!

Today we decided to head up the north valley path as far as the quarry to check out what is there at this season.

On the way we saw three gazelle half way up the hillside across the valley, making their way single file along one of their paths eastward and upward to a group of pines growing there. They continued on to the skyline. A little later closer to the quarry we heard a peculiar sound which we first took to be some large bird then soon saw that it was actually a nice adult male gazelle amongst the pines. The noise sounded like something between a honk and the 'grok' call of a hooded crow and definitely seemed to be coming from the buck. He did this four times, intermittently, as he walked along, then he headed off along a trail eastward. I've never heard gazelle make any sound before so this was a first for me!

There were quite a few hyraxes scampering about the limestone shelves across the valley just before the quarry and more, including young ones, in the colony just down from the north bend of valley road.

One goal of the quarry trip was to see if the Tristram's starlings were there and if so, just a pair or a whole family group, or small flock? Well, they weren't around the buildings as they had been last spring. I whistled a few times, when they're close they often respond to that. After some time we were happy to hear their whistles coming from way over the other side of the quarry. We found a trail around the southern edge, being careful not to get too close to the edge of course, and tried to locate them but scanned the cliff faces in vain. I'd seen some movement from a distance but now they were staying out of view and briefly their calls changed quality, as if they'd entered a cave or cavity of some kind. They must be around some corner out of view but from the calls, at least two birds.

Last season it seemed a pair raised a couple of young which makes them the only breeding T. starlings I know of in Jerusalem, unless they're breeding near the Al Aqsa mosque.. possible, I've seen family groups there. They come to visit Jerusalem in flocks regularly, probably arriving from the Rift valley via Wadi Qelt. You can count on seeing them there.

Other birds in the area were chukar partridge which we heard chuckling numerous times, also along the way as well as a group of seven on the approach to the quarry, graceful warblers, house sparrows and feral pigeons. A pair of jackdaws was also flying around the quarry and may breed there. Other jackdaws also about but that pair looked the most serious about nesting. Swifts seen and heard up above, white spectacled bulbuls about. Black redstart? Husband thought so but I didn't get a good view.

Great spotted cuckoo call heard once across the valley along the way. Blackbirds in song.
Eurasian sparrowhawk flew over, Eurasian jays heard a number of times.. also gearing up for breeding and getting more vocal.

Vegetation: hawthorns budding, starting to get green, most of those mentioned recently, cyclamen, spiny broom, red anemone, as well as more yellow orchid Ophrys lutea on the north facing slope as we made our way down a rough hillside trail into the valley.

Thursday 27 Feb- range- 8-14.5 degrees C. Time of walk ~ 4.30 p.m. : 9.2 degrees C, 61% humidity, winds north easterly 3.5 knots, sky almost all clear.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

#379 Clover and general wild activity

Clover in flower not far from the saplings. Not much of a flower but very obvious male stamens but notice the developing star shapes. Because of these I think it's Star clover, Trifolium stellatum, a charming species we photographed last season in its later star bearing stage.

Today we walked along valley road towards the pump station where we noticed many active hyraxes. For a stretch almost every boulder just down from the road had a hyrax sitting on it, looking up at us. If we just keep walking they stay still, staring, but if we stop they will feel threatened and scamper off. Bat seen not long after sunset.

We headed through the sapling field and on along a trail that leads parallel to and just west of the watercourse. In that area we found the small clover flowering above and, on examining more heads of shepherd's purse, contented myself that they were NOT the same flower that Moshe photographed and that I'd IDd then as Nasturtium officionale. Good! Must find that Nasturtium again though. It was growing more in the shade of the pines while the shepherd's purse likes more open areas apparently.

At look-out corner we headed across gazelle field and stopped to chat about toads to a group of boys playing around the cistern. We see them often, they helped deal with the fires last summer and it's always nice to talk to others who like the forest, for all parties. We continued on towards the bat cave, all the while observing the vegetation and just soaking in the early spring earthiness of the place, the scents of eucalyptus and pine and burgeoning earth. I found a pheasant's eye (almost) in bloom on the bank of the north watercourse where it crosses gazelle field but it was closed, as were a good number of Star of Bethlehem also growing in the area.

When we reached the pines and cypress just north of the north watercourse I headed up the limestone shelves looking out for any other interesting vegetation: red anemone, spurge, Nonea, golden drop, and of course, more asphodel and thorny burnet, as well as the beautiful purple blue cress jobs, and then came upon the curious section of backbone shown below. I really am not sure what it is yet. We photographed it for future reference.

Chaffinch female spotted on top of a cypress, flock of feral pigeon aloft, calling. graceful warblers. Stone curlew calling beautifully from the fields just after dark. Syrian woodpecker call near east valley watercourse. Jackdaws heard calling somewhere over east, hooded crows about as usual, one on top of a cypress near the bat cave, probably has nest nearby.

In our garden sunbird heard calling musically today, white spectacled bulbul also in the gardens.

Wed 26 Feb: At ~4.25 p.m. 12.7 degrees C, (today's range) 7.5-14.5 degrees, winds 8.7 kt NW, humidity 58% and rising, sunny with scattered cumulus

Mysterious backbone found on the hillside just north of the north valley watercourse. Lens cap for comparison. The bone on top, upper right, is a separate larger vertebra that is probably part of the continuation of the right end. I have some ideas but no conclusions. Anyone?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

First chamomile and other delights

Shepherd's purse Capsella bursa-pastoris developing its characteristic heart shaped seedpods. These are used in herbal teas to stop/slow heavy bleeding and are traditionally used by women after childbirth.

Five (or 6) gazelle, a group of three making their way up the east end of the hillside westward from gazelle field, two females (or a female and well grown young) followed by an adult male. A little later two more gazelle along the same track, also not adult males. Not long after an adult male was spotted on the skyline, which may have been the first adult male if he changed course and ran a way, or may have been a different individual.

I heard chukar partridge chuckles from the direction of the north valley woods, blackbird alarm calls (at sunset), great tit in song, collared dove high on a wire over north part of gazelle field. Several pairs of laughing dove were feeding at crumb corner.. husband also noticed a pair of ornamental doves there too which may or may not have been already feral. He also noticed white spectacled bulbul by one of the snake paths earlier.

Large flock of jackdaws swarming in the sky like starlings almost, over Hizmeh towards sunset, going on 200 individuals. Hooded crows about as usual as well as the usual piping calls in the pines which I think are chiffchaff contact calls though they're so hard to spot amongst the needles. Lark briefly heard north end of north gazelle field, hill slope area.

We started along central trail then at owl glade cut across country to check out the foliage. All this area was burnt in the fires but there was no sign of that now and plenty asphodel, roman squill, pale Nonea and red anemone growing.

Gazelle field has a heavier, damper soil and a wider range of vegetation though it too was burnt last summer. Evidently a great deal survived somehow in the ground as too much growing now to account for seeding from elsewhere. Totally amazing how seeds and other plant parts survived the temperatures they had to endure but they evidently did.

I noticed the numerous little white flower heads were developing seed pods and we decided to get a pic but it was only when we examined the pic at home that I realized what I was seeing. Young shepherd's purse seedpods! I'd used this stuff to make tea many times after births. I had thought the flowers were Nasturtium officinale based on the ID of a pic of a flower head Moshe took in the woods in the first week of February. Certainly the flowers are quite similar, and they are the same family, (Brassicaceae) but the leaves are very different. I want to check the flower heads again tomorrow in the field to see how they compare with Moshe's pic. I also hunted again for pheasant's eye but found none. Lots of another relative, Buckler mustard, everywhere, roadside verges especially but also many parts of gazelle field (as well as some either white or common mustard). First chamomile Anthemis spotted! This pretty daisy like plant is another favourite for teas and grew last year in profusion in the field. They're not supposed to start blooming till March but this one didn't want to wait!

At the north end of gazelle field is a wide but quite low (you'd have to bend over to walk through) natural arch in the rock which I checked out for vegetation. Some old Inula, golden drop and then a few clusters of maidenhair fern Adiantum capillus-veneris on each side, close to the ground. This is the second place I've seen this plant in the whole area, the first being the bat cave.

Moshe having fun on the rocks by the hidden watercourse.. taken last week, added here just for fun:)

Tues: range 8-13 degrees C, at about 4.40 p.m. when we headed out it was 11.6 degrees C, humidity ~60%, winds NW1.7 kt, sky totally clear in contrast to the cumulus we've been having last few days.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Various spring delights

Is it possible to have too many toad pictures? This is a mugshot of the female briefly captured today, sitting on Moshe's hand. (Bufo viridis )

Last night not long after 10 p.m. Aharon, our eldest, was thrilled to encounter a porcupine Hystrix indica on valley road, and a very nice size individual by his description. We have long suspected they come up to the bank to forage as we've had brief but indeterminate glimpses but this is the first time any of us have seen one at such close quarters.

This morning from first light I was serenaded by a relatively unfamiliar song from the Bauhinia. Not one of our locals, that was for sure. I was too tired to investigate at the time but heard him clearly and I'd put good money on him being a blackcap Sylvia atricapilla, an old world warbler that is on spring passage through Israel in droves starting this time of year. (I checked later in the day my Uzi Paz book for the likelyhood of its occurrence) Passage migrants do occasionally stop to sing and he was certainly a treat! I'd heard their song many times in a copse next to the river Taff back in Wales. This was not exactly the same but similar enough, local dialects can vary.

Also in the garden: house sparrows, sunbird, laughing dove, blackbird, feral pigeons.

Our walk was rewarding. As Moshe and Avremi like to do we went cross country under the forest canopy from valley road down towards the north valley path. The boys had fun leaping from rock to rock and I was naturally stopping all the time to see what was blooming. Lots of Euphorbia, red anemone, Roman squill, golden drop, a nice little stand of Damascus Gagea and of course, thorny burnet which has become a bit of an in joke with us now.
From north trail we headed cross country again towards the recently burnt patch where Moshe found lots of freshly sprouted brown mushrooms with white gills. (Not for eating I'd assume!) as well as a swift Apus high up above.

A little further on we noticed gazelle movement in the east part of gazelle field, at least six individuals, no adult males seen, moving to and fro between the almond trees and the various water courses.

We heard chukar partridges back in the direction of north valley, up west of the bat cave, then noticed a flock of jackdaws over 150 birds strong flying to and fro between foraging on the hillslopes and Hizmeh. Hooded crows also about and calling. Eurasian jays.

Husband spotted a raptor hunting near the power lines and we watched for a while. From what I could make out despite seeing her largely in silhouette I'd say female common kestrel, Falco tinnunculus, and quite successful as she flew up to the pylon a few times and ate something in her talons. She wasn't doing the hover method of hunting today, simply quartering and diving.
Husband speculated Lesser Kestrel, and although they would have returned from their winter haunts by now and would certainly love to use this field for hunting, they would normally hunt in groups rather than alone. The females are almost indistinguishable in the field. I really must visit the main lesser kestrel colony again this spring. It's in the centre of town in a neighbourhood of old red tile buildings. They favour the eaves for nesting. I haven't been there in at least 5 yrs.

We searched the south end of gazelle field for pheasant's eye to hopefully photograph it but no luck today and light was fading. There was plenty Nasturtium, Malcolmia (most white but some pink/purple tinted) , various small composites, blue Nonea, and by the wall that yellow/green cucumber type and fumitory. Alas no pheasant's eye.. well perhaps more will come out later in the season.

Moshe, of course, had to go down into the cistern and catch a toad Bufo viridis and now he's clearly seen which are which he could say this specimen was a female, and a very pretty one too.

Before we left the area shortly after sunset we were treated to the loud call, and even a nice view this time, of a white breasted kingfisher, Halcyon smyrnensis flying up into the top branches of a eucalyptus. Stone curlews and chakking blackbirds could also be heard.

Today's range : 4.5-12 degrees C. Time of walk: just over 11 degrees C, just 54% humidity. winds SW 5-10 knots. (By the way, from what I can make out that air pollution we had last thursday was mainly comprised of automobile exhaust from the Dan region, the huge metropolitan area around Tel Aviv. Occasionally it become photochemical smog and drifts uphill in our direction but that doesn't happen so often fortunately. There may be more to it since I don't remember ever seeing it that bad, if I get any further information I'll post it)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

#376 Mallow in bloom

The beautiful common plant (French) Mallow Malva nicaeensis is just starting to bloom now. Its leaves have been coming up nicely for the past few weeks, each the shape and size of like large spread webbed hands, (lobed, dentate)

It's called in Hebrew 'Helmit metzuyah חלמית מצויה from the word 'le'hem' meaning 'bread' because its leaves are edible (fried, boiled or in a salad), as are it's seedpods, one of those beneficial wild plants along with the wild mustards and others and great because it's so common. We can safely give these leaves to tortoises, iguanas and the like without concern of insecticides.

Today we were fortunate enough to see two very nice 'big jobs', the first was a buzzard again on the ground under the trees just south of the sapling area- this time I caught a glimpse of its almost chestnut brown upper wing plumage and could see it was a long legged buzzard Buteo rufinus, and very likely the same Buteo husband saw in the same area yesterday.

The second was a long eared owl Asio otus that flew just a few feet near Moshe's head as we approached the owl glade, a clearing along central trail. We called it that because we'd had glimpses of these owls in this area before and we're very happy it's still hanging out here. Moshe marvelled at its total silence at such close range.

Gazelle, female, noticed up on the east slope from the lower east valley trail.. she headed up to the tree line quite quickly to emerge out onto east field and the lower slopes of windsurfer hill.

Hyrax: some active by valley road on the bank.

Birds: Hooded crows about, great tit calls, feral pigeons on and between tops of buildings, blackbird, much beautiful song, sunbird calling in the cape honeysuckle, some laughing dove cooing.

Moshe spotted a beautiful pink/purple tinted Malcolmia and a small pheasant's eye, Adonis microcarpa a red flower of the buttercup family with frond like leaves, both in the middle of gazelle field. Latter unfortunately not open enough for a photo.

Sunday Feb 22: Temp range: 4.6-7.6 degrees C. winds W to SW all day.

Time of walk: 4.30 p.m. temp. 6.8 degrees C., 93% humidity, 8.7 kt.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

#375 A day of rain

A single almond blossom at dusk. Taken about a week ago by husband in the vale to the north.

We had rain almost continuously from friday night to the following saturday night, accompanied by much thunder and some hail, quite dramatic! This is part of the 'malkosh', the late winter rains and was great to wash away the weird weather we had on thursday. Apparently there was a country wide air pollution alert but the origin is as yet unknown to me. When we get fine dust from the deserts in the south the sky is usually tinted yellow but this was white, almost like a water mist as I mentioned then, but the humidity was too low to account for that. I was baffled then and would still like to know what it was! Still, the rain washed it all out and refreshed the air. Wonderful!

Today's range: 2.7 -6.3 degrees C. winds between westerly and southwesterly pretty much all day, between 9-25 kt, humidity 94-100%

Pretty much every water course we know about was flowing today and much of the south east quadrant of gazelle field was flooded over. Water in the north valley watercourse looked reddish/brown muddy from above, no doubt bringing much silt down from the quarry area.

Late afternoon the birds were eager to grab a scrap of foraging time between storm clouds and there was quite a bit of activity. Blackbirds were in song on and off most of the afternoon, laughing doves cooing, house sparrows active in the garden as well a white spectacled bulbul briefly and a sunbird heard calling too.

Walking along valley road we heard great tits in song, vocal graceful warblers, saw a small flock of finches fly over, saw Eurasian jay fly into the pines, a covey of chukar partridges foraging on the bank, heard jackdaws and saw a large flock of them over windsurfer hill, and hooded crows and feral pigeon were also aloft and active.

This morning husband took a walk down to the pumping station and noticed a buzzard Buteo on the ground not far beyond, on the western slopes close to the watercourse. It managed to get aloft without too much trouble, flew into a cypress but was harassed by hooded crows.

Mammals: Red Fox on thursday night coming down the bank from the buildings near the north loop of valley road. Today most hyraxes 'indoors' but we did see two of them, one belonging to the pump-house colony was startled by the partridges and probably figured it was a good idea to run in the same direction, another scampered across the road on our way back.

This evening after 10 p.m. we found a toad Bufo viridis, on valley road by the north loop.. no surprise in that! Great conditions for them.

This pic was taken in the east valley watercourse back on Feb 4th. I hadn't included them then since they were not open for I.D. but they still make an interesting shot, and still a mystery to me!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Back to the secret valley

Spiny broom, Calicotome villosa blooming in many places on the slopes of north valley.
Pic taken late last week by Moshe but seen also today

A grasshopper type, found in the hidden watercourse and taken by Avremi today

A geranium type, taken by Moshe last week, also seen today.

Ground beetle: found on the hillside and pic taken both by Moshe, today.

Moshe was totally delighted by the rock scrambling ops up in the 'secret valley' and was keen to get back there today. It's really not actually a valley but a watercourse hidden between the flint stones ridge and the gazelle arena ridge which only flows in and after heavy rain, but has every feature of a typical mountain brook and is a pleasure for geologists, botanists.. and also for zoologists such as myself because it's a great place for a variety of arthropods, reptiles and other wildlife.

We saw the first butterfly we've seen this season in the pine woods near valley road, a white predictably, as well as a ground beetle on the hill side and a nice grasshopper type with red markings under the legs in the hidden watercourse.

Birds included a pair of chukar partridges under the pines, calls of stone curlew just after it got dark, sunbird song and calls in the garden, graceful warblers vocal near valley road, Eurasian jays and hooded crows about, small groups of finches, greenfinches? didn't get good views. House sparrows,

Weather, rather overcast, visibility poor, appeared misty though humidity only 37% but we could barely see Hizmeh. Airborne particles? Surprising given wind in the west since early afternoon, 8.7 kt. Temp. at time of our walk just over 15 degrees C and falling, range today:
8.5-17 degrees C.

Seen in bloom: asphodel, roman squill, geranium types, golden drop, thorny burnet, spiny broom, red anemone, geranium types.

Almost forgot! Gazelle male and female seen up on the hillside beyond the hidden watercourse, this time a female following an adult buck for a change. My eldest son, Aharon, reported much hyrax activity up at the quarry.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Up to the north ridge

Annual Clary Salvia viridis, Moshe

Today our youngest son Avremi came with us and Moshe wanted to go cross country up the north slope of north valley, a little west of the bat cave. This would take us out overlooking the secret valley farther upstream from the two acacias.

The way up was totally delightful as we scrambled up levels of limestone like huge giant steps, stopping just to point out the vegetation we had learned about to Avremi: asphodel, Jerusalem spurge, thorny burnet, red anemone, a few green orchids, pale Nonea, some more of that blue radish type plant and then an unfamiliar one, a spike of pale yellow and deep purple blossoms- we naturally had to stop and get photographs. It turned out to be Salvia viridis, Annual Clary.

Annual clary,
flower spike, Akiva or Moshe, extraordinary for its little flourish of purple petal like parts on top of a spike of very different shaped flowers.

At the top of this ascent Moshe found a group of very interesting rocks I hadn't noticed before. Huge boulders of white/grey limestone but in them, nice chunks of flint. All the rocks just in that small area were holding flint. I was amazed because I had no idea flint occurred like this, but apparently it does occur in nodules exactly in this kind of rock, though this is the only spot I've seen it.

Ahead of us husband spotted a couple of gazelle and a little later we saw four of them up ahead on the hillside on one of their many thin trails, heading west, the first seemed to be a young male, the other three, fully grown adult males.
At the top of the trail on the other side of secret valley we found a very interesting place which seems to me to be a gazelle arena. The area for several square metres was bald, just bare red brown earth but marked in many places with hoofprints and scuffle marks. I'd guess this is where the male gazelle have their jousting bouts, their more serious horn banging tournaments. Definitely a place to watch!

We also glimpsed a fox, a dark one husband thought, way up north west on the north slopes of secret valley and coming down, before he disappeared amongst the rocks.

On our way back down the hill we noticed the usual Eurasian sparrowhawk return to roost flight.. he is quite a regular bird, assuming it's the same one! Moshe's foot turned a rock and under it was the smallest scorpion I've seen between one and two centimetres long. It ran for cover. We also saw a small mantis on the way up, not the first I've seen lately.

Some feathers of a medium size/large bird by the tree line, striking black, white and chestnut brown. I'd say great spotted cuckoo wing feathers and wonder of the crows got this bird or something else? I would expect the local breeding hoodies to treat the cuckoo as enemy and this is the second time I've found such remains in the woods.

Blackbird song, Hooded crows about, jackdaws, Eurasian jays, larks and stone curlew?
Collared dove coo heard.
House sparrows and laughing dove in the street, white wagtail heard,

Flower head of Jerusalem spurge, Euphorbia hierosolymitana, now growing and flowering in clumps all over the place from watercourse level to above the tree line. Moshe. This is magnified, the flower head is usually barely a centimetre across.

On the way back that rotten woody patch just down from the north valley trail was STILL smoking, glinting embers visible on the hot ground. 20 to 30 square metres still fuming despite the recent rain, though it hadn't spread.

Weather: Switch from westerlies to easterlies about 8 a.m.
Time of walk, ~4.30 p.m. 11.4 degrees C, (today's range 4.75- 11.4 degrees C)
Humidity 48%, wind 0-3 knots.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Orchids and Toads

A pair of Bufo viridis , in amplexus on Moshe's hands, NOT actually mating. He's just in position waiting for her to spawn, fertilization being external. Taken by husband. Great sexual dimorphism, the female being significantly larger and redder in colour.

Today we cut through the pine woods from valley road exploring the ground as we went. We met the path leading to north valley and from there cut across the north part of gazelle field towards the cistern, and then back towards look-out corner where we took a couple of bag fulls of earth from the banks of the watercourse where it emerges onto the field, for an apple-seed growing project Moshe wanted to do. I had noticed the earth right there was soft and rich.

The first find was in the first stretch, under the pines just west of valley road. I was seeing plenty asphodel, Roman squill and red anemones but it was husband who first reached and spotted a small group of orchids, Ophrys lutea (Yellow orchid). I suspect it's a Judean subspecies, apparently there are several in this country, it's quite a bit greener than the more northern version. We'd seen this type last year much lower in the woods, under the pines just west of the clearing by the east valley watercourse. I was not aware they were growing up where we found them or so early in the year.

Yellow orchid, Ophrys Lutea. Pic taken by Moshe today.

Next interesting find to show Moshe was a kestrel Falco tinnunculus busy with its classic hover hunt technique. It was over the mid part of the hillslopes facing into the wind, flying into it in such a way that it stayed in perfect position in the air, its head able to fix on the ground. We saw it go down and then up again a few times, ending in a decisive dive. Then it flew to the top of a pylon where I could see it through binoculars feeding. It grips the food under a talon and bends down its head to tear off pieces, and this movement we could clearly see. Amazing how they can successfully find prey at such a height and catch it so well.

Husband noticed a pair of stone curlews alight on the hill slope and after some searching with binoculars I was lucky enough to find one of them amongst the boulders and burnet. I little farther and we emerged onto gazelle field where we were delighted to see a group of seven gazelle emerge from the pines between us and central trail and head for the cistern. From there they headed up the slope to the east, on the way to east field. I did not see any adult bucks amongst them, all females and well grown young as far as I could make out.

At the cistern Moshe spotted movement in the water and headed down the ladder those lads had left. Turned out to be a pair of green toads Bufo viridis in amplexus. The male clutched her determinedly, in position to fertilize her spawn when she would be ready. Possessive little chap! Even on Moshe's hands he maintained his grip, only letting go briefly at some uncomfortable movement of the hands. As soon as the pair hit the water again he resumed his position.

I was happy to see Malcolmia crenulata, a pretty kind of mustard, blooming in gazelle field again, not far from the cistern. Yet another species not hurt by the fire, and back! A variety of small dandelion types were also blooming, both orange and yellow.

Malcolmia crenulata, a member of the cabbage family, in gazelle field near the cistern.

Jackdaw flock heard from the east, hooded crows about, some blackbird song heard and house sparrows and laughing doves in the garden earlier,

Today's range: 5-7.75 degrees C. Time of walk: (4.40-6 p.m. ) ~7.2 degrees C and falling, humidity: 75% and rising, winds W/WNW, 4-8 knots. Intermittent rain but not on our walk.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Cyclamens and tortoises

Today we headed up north valley towards the quarry and we weren't far off when we noticed rain bearing cumulus looming fast from the west. We decided to get back and up the hill to the neighbourhood to avoid getting caught in a downpour. We just about made it back in time!

Flower of the day: Cyclamen Cyclamen persicum which was blooming in many places on the north facing slope. Looking back in last year's records, we did not find this flower till about a month from now but this does not mean they are blooming early this year but that last year we did not look on that slope before the middle of March so did not catch the start of it.

There were plenty other plants about too, some more of the Jerusalem spurge (Euphorbia),
Spiny broom, Calicotome villosa (?) or similar, a few more of those four petal blue/purple radish/cress(?) jobs, and lots of red anemones and small pink/purple geranium types.

The willow tree in the garden also wanted to get in the spring action and is producing lots of catkins. The Bauhinia is not yet in bloom, later when it is warmer no doubt.

It was good to hear a sunbird in the garden today, especially in the cape honeysuckle, many calls and some song. Clearly temperature is not a good guide to whether they'll be active or not as it was quite cool today.

The down side of today's walk was the finding of three dead tortoises Testudo graeca in north valley, two of them in a stand of cypress on the flat level of the watercourse. They were no doubt there to graze on the rich growth of grass and other vegetation there during a warm spell but became casualties for one reason or another. Definite signs of attack but can't be known if that happened before or after they died. The three were different ages, quite mature, half grown and very young. Still, I'm sure many made it, they can be quite prolific and have few enemies.

This shell of a young tortoise casualty is only four centimetres long.

Two gazelle noticed across the valley, more than half way up the hill slope, from the look of them, two well grown females and moving east.

Birds included Great tit (calls), blackbird (song), hooded crows, Eurasian jays, (laughing doves, house sparrows about the streets), collared doves in the pines, chukar partridge heard.
Also white wagtail yesterday up on the roof I forgot to mention.

I'm sure there was more stuff about but I must confess I've been paying the flowers amongst the rocks more attention lately! So exciting to learn new plants. I also managed to get IDs on plants I'd seen earlier while looking for the four petalled job. The plant with the curious figure 8 shaped seed pods turns out to be Buckler mustard Biscutella didyma. We found more of that by the side of our street, all florets converted to seed pods already. The one we photographed a few days ago was down in east valley.

Those long sprays of tiny white and pink flowers we've noted flowering many months by valley road turn out to be Horsetail knotweed Polygonum equisetiforme

for a very nice close up.

Monday 16th, at time of walk (4.30 p.m.) temp just under 10 degrees C, humidity 52%, winds WSW just over 18 kt . Today's range: 6-11.25 degrees C.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

More pretty purple jobs, Moshe's work

Lamium amplexicaule Henbit Deadnettle .. taken by Moshe in the grassy verge across our street.. near where he found the fumitory. Naturally he wanted to get the fly in the pic!

I found this pretty cluster of small pink/blue/purple flowers in a ledge on a range of boulders near the barbecue patches from hell. No two seemed to have exactly the same hue and they are just delightful. Moshe took this picture of part of the group. No sooner do I solve one mystery than I'm faced with another ! Such is the nature of nature exploration, always new delights to fathom. So far it seems to be one of the wild radishes but I haven't found it yet and I haven't seen this flower anywhere else.. yet.

Ground fire in north valley where the watercourse emerges into the open clear of the trees. Husband noticed it was burning in several patches quite independently and there was quite an accumulation of rotting wood and vegetation in that stretch. I was amazed to see this already so soon after the last rain but given a clear day of sunshine and all that built up ground heat as well as many dry old surface stalks, conditions were ripe for a spontaneous fire. Husband and Moshe worked to make sure it was contained while I worked on the BBQ patches from hell.

Husband heard Tristram's Grackle this morning at about 6.30 a.m. somewhere off east.

In the woods, Eurasian sparrowhawk returning south (to woods to roost from forage in hills to north) just around dusk. As you see, birds tend to have very regular habits and if you're in the same place at the same time you'll probably see the same individual birds heading off to bed!

White spectacled bulbuls, House sparrows, laughing dove (cooing) in the garden. Hooded crows, feral pigeons about flying over here and there.

Blackbirds song in the wood late afternoon and dusk. Some Eurasian jays vocal and active in the pines.

Weather today:, 7-13.5 degrees C, time of walk: ~10 degrees C, humidity ~60%, westerlies ~14 kt

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mystery solved

Almond trees in bloom. Taken last thursday in the glade to the north.

Finally! Thanks to Nogah Reuveni's wonderful book 'Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage' I have an I.D. on a common bush that has had me baffled for a ridiculously long time. I really love Reuveni's book, it's a must for any naturalist spending any amount of time here.

-gives link to Amazon where available. ISBN 965-233-011-6

This is the thorny cushion shaped bush I've mentioned a million times because there are about a million of them everywhere from the middle of the pine woods to the top of the hills. We photographed the tiny (male) flowers a few weeks ago and their network of pale grey thorns making almost a hexagonal net effect, the leaflets are very small and delicate.

Turns out it's Thorny burnet Sarcopterium spinosum.

There's a lovely picture of leaves, thorns and ripe berries at

as well, as, of course, in Nogah's book. Turns out it's actually a member of the rose family and bee pollinated, so I was out on both those counts.. probably why I was so baffled.

I'd taken it for an aromatic bush simply because on many occasions brushing past them the most gorgeous aromatic fragrance filled the air. Seemed reasonable at the time except that I'd forgotten something. The less conspicuous Israeli thyme Corydothymus captitatus often grows right alongside it and THIS is very aromatic. That's what happens when one assumes! This evening I squeezed leaves of the thorny burnet and found them not aromatic at all. Nope, it was the thyme. This is what comes of not testing one's assumptions! I was so thrilled to get this one sorted out.. this is how I get my kicks!:)

It's known as Sirim in the Bible, (In Hebrew) and when it burns the berries explode with something like a snap crackle and pop effect. It's my theory now that those naughty boys last summer were setting fires just to get this cute effect. At any rate, as we see, those fires don't stop the burnet recovering! Appropriate name!

Anyway, Ms. Reuveni's book, which I had been browsing the previous evening, tipped me off that there are male flowers, those thick with stamens which we had found and also female flowers which are bright red though tiny. Sometimes these are on separate bushes, occasionally the same ones. So today on our walk we looked out for the female flowers and found plenty, it being the season for them. We also found quite a lot of bushes with both but otherwise seemed most were male, though many female. Now adding these photos in Sunday, day after.

male flowers of thorny burnet

female flowers.

Apart from that, what did we see and hear? No luck on gazelles but lots of hyrax activity along valley road.

Birds: a pair of blackbirds foraging in the garden, blackbird song. Graceful warblers very vocal and active, stone curlews friday and saturday evenings getting more and more vocal, large sparrowhawk today about sunset, probably a female, returning from north to forest, chaffinch and chiffchaff contact calls in the pines, great spotted cuckoo calls in north valley, from trees on northern slopes, chukar partridges and little owl also heard. Great tits heard and MAYBE a European robin still, in a place up the bank on the south slopes where I've heard it ticking before.

House sparrows, laughing doves and feral pigeons about the buildings. Today sky totally clear and conditions pleasantly mild. Collared doves on the wire near the north valley path turn off... brief flight call heard, a little cooing and a bird approaching another in a way that suggests courting.

Forgot to mention brief swift call about sunset thursday.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

More of Thursday's selections.

This is the second entry for Thursday 12 February. The main entry which follows this one concerns the nettle cave and also includes mammal and bird observations of the day and weather. This entry concerns more of the flowers and other delights seen on the way.

A grasshopper.. no idea what species yet, it's not in my book or at the site I use. ~ 2" long. Taken by Moshe on the south facing slope of the hill today. I was quite impressed with him on this one as we did not need to zoom and crop the pic at all. Click on the pic for a bigger view!

One of the small geraniums. This I found growing in the grassy verge of our street. Taken today.

A fumitory, probably Fumaria densiflora , found by Moshe near the one above, also today.

A Euphorbia, I think Euphorbia hierosolymitana also known as Jerusalem spurge. I found it growing amongst the boulders on the south facing slope of the hill. Taken last week but also found today. All these pics by husband, A. Atwood.

The following were also taken last week but I want to get them online now before they get out of date.

Not sure what this is yet. It resembles spitting cucumber but the flowers are less yellow, more green and the leaves are smaller, shaped like spearheads. Whereas spitting cucumber grows in radiating clumps this tends to grow like a vine alongside boulders.

These curious little stalks are everywhere and the caterpillars have been climbing on them. I dubbed them 'triffids' because of the three part bodies on them that look like they might be exploded seed-heads.

Back to the Nettle/jawbone cave

Here's the nettle cave.. big enough to fit a good size dining room both in extent and height. Hung with great clumps of golden drop (Podonosma). The ceiling is sooty from fires and there is a patch of charred earth underneath showing that it has been used quite recently by man. There is a 'portico' in front with a rough stone wall around this 'apron'. It's likely shepherds used to bring their sheep here for shelter. No sign of bats today.

We decided to go to the large cave overlooking the olive glade, just over the ridge to the north. I decided to rename it the nettle cave for its more notable vegetation. The smaller cave on the other side of the hill also held bats so that name is out. 'Jawbone cave' is also not good since the small cave held a dog jawbone.. that we found months ago. Today we found more gazelle bones on the hill outside the larger cave.. leg bones, more ribs and a hip bone. The smaller cave I'm now calling the fern cave for the maidenhair fern we found and photographed there. Today Moshe also found a white porcupine quill at the east end of the large cave indicating that they may use a hole in the cave wall there for a den. That could lead into the hill some way. No luck on bats at all today. The nettles match Urtica urens as far as I can see from all its parts but the vegetation is quite lush, leaves quite large and glossier than any I remember from the U.K.

Gazelle: none seen today, but some fresh spoor and old bones near the nettle cave.
Hyrax: shrill alarm call down from north curve of valley road.

We were accompanied by the beautiful trilling calls of a lark on the hill, probably crested lark though I didn't get a good close view of it, a dark job bobbing on a nearby rock, looked like black redstart in both jizz, shape and colour but again, didn't get close enough for a better view. It was quite far from its usual lower land rubble and ruin haunts but not unlikely.

Hooded crows about, on tree tops and flying over, feral pigeons, Eurasian jays and jackdaws vocal, feral pigeons aloft, house sparrows active and vocal in the gardens, blackbird in gardens and woods, singing at dusk, and alarm calls. Almost forgot to mention! Stone curlew heard calling at nightfall on our way back and Little Owl heard up in the direction of the secret valley.

On the hillside we found Nonea obtusifolia (Monkswort) with blue flowers blooming right next to those with the pale yellow.. leaves identical but flowers different, both in colour and in detail form. The pale ones are same size and petals but central parts at the petal base project like small bumps, seem to be stamen heads.. unlike the blue flowers.. yet they seemed the same plant. Are we looking at male and female flowers? There is apparently quite a bit of form variation in this group, given the number of papers online on this subject but I haven't seen anywhere pics of the pale morph or anything to say they change colour. This is Moshe's pic of some of them.

Other flowers noticed- Jerusalem spurge (Euphorbia), Star of Bethlehem, red anemone, Bellevalia, golden drop (Podonosma) most common- not dense but definitely present in good numbers, not rare.

Thursday ~4.10 p.m. just over 14 degrees C, humidity 58%, wind easterly, very light. (Easterlies blowing since about 8 a.m. westerlies before that. Lots of beautiful high altitude cloud.
range: 7.5 to 15 degrees C, peaking late afternoon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

After the rain

This sweet little flower head really caught my eye.. you can see how the fertilized florets are turning into figure 8 seedpods. A. Atwood.

This and next pic by Moshe.. contrasting plants.. tiny soft 'green finger' succulent with raindrops and fresh shiny ultra spiky Acanthus syriacus (bear's breeches) leaves.

Yesterday's walk was totally rained out.. rain most of the day with some hail, lightning, thunder and winds.

Today: wednesday, winds still in the west pretty much all day, At time of walk: 4.30 p.m. ~9.5 degrees C, humidity 84%, winds WSW 7kt. The winds had felled a couple of the sick eucalyptus trees in east valley. On the plus side the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund- this whole natural area comprising the Mir Forest, Eyn Prat and surrounds belongs to them) had been over on Tu Bishvat and planted at least a score more saplings in the field near the pumping station.

We took a walk in east valley from the sapling field toward the orchard but not along the well worn trail, along a rougher trail under the pines which runs parallel to the stream bed to its west. In this area Moshe noticed a whole group of gazelle, at least half a dozen ahead of us. When they became aware of us they quickly crossed the stream and moved up the hill to the east, an adult buck last of the group.

Some hyrax activity by valley road.

Birds: Jackdaws and Hooded crows heard. At dusk much noise from hooded crows on the hill, I think something disturbed them up there. Eurasian jay calls in the pines.
Greenfinch perched on top of a cypress, others around.
Graceful warblers very vocal around valley road. Some great tit song and calls. Blackbird song and alarm calls. Most birds stayed huddled in trees from the wetness.

Since tuesday was election day and the polling stations are in the schools, Avremi had the day off. I let the boys camp in the woods Monday night, warning them it would probably rain in the night but their dome tents are pretty self contained and water proof. We have camped many times as a family and the boys know what to do. They picked a spot in a cypress stand near the crossroads in the middle of east valley and had a very pleasant night. The moon was full and though the sky was somewhat overcast the moon penetrated enough to give very adequate visibility. They had a very pleasant time though it was slightly scarey when a whole pack of feral dogs arrived and sniffed around the tent! They did not try to get in though, simply went on their way.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Jawbone cave

Gagea commutata Star of Bethlehem

Leaves spotted like Nonea but pale flower up on south facing hillside, not I.D.d yet..

Another caterpillar of Moshe's. This is what you call 'hairy' ! Also south facing hillslope

Moshe found us a new cave today.. a cave he'd visited with Aharon (his big brother) before and discovered is another roosting place for a small group of bats. It overlooks the olive grove vale on the north facing slope and we'd missed it as we hadn't come down that way before. It's a nice and spacious one and probably was used for living quarters long ago given its look-out potential. We found some bones in there, some ribs, hair and what looks to me like the lower jawbone of a gazelle. Foxes and even the local feral dogs would have too hard a time running down a healthy gazelle but it could have been scavenged.
Around the mouth of the cave were golden drop, and in front a LOT of nettles Urtica which I haven't seen growing anywhere else in the area at all. Could be Roman nettle, would have to see the fruiting bodies. They were heavily chewed so worth looking here for caterpillars since some very interesting species use nettles. (Lots of caterpillars about generally lately )
No maidenhair fern here.

Birds: hooded crows in tops of tall trees, collared doves also.. in one group of cypress just across north valley it seemed both crows and the doves were interested in sites too close to each other, the dove gave way, circled round and took position in a nearby tree. Plenty room for both, just not in the same tree top!

(btw Husband made an interesting observation a pair of hooded crows harassing a Eurasian Jay in a pine tree in another part of the neighbourhood.. the jay was making a very good mewling cat imitation when the crows got close!)

Husband noticed something on the skyline to north which looked odd, turned out to be a large hawk on the ground.. Buteo, one of the long legged? Moshe got close and it glided across the olive tree vale and out of sight on the other side so I didn't get any definite identifying views.

Apart from those.. singing blackbirds, very vocal graceful warblers, the usual house sparrows, feral pigeons. Moshe said he saw a group of swifts this morning as well as a Buteo, possibly the same one we saw.

On the hill slopes we found some Bellevalia, quite a lot of star of Bethlehem, a kind of Euphorbia, (Jerusalem spurge) E. hierosolymitana? or similar, a plant with spotty leaves like those of Nonea but different flowers, and a plant similar to spitting cucumber but leaves shaped like spearheads and flowers yellow/green rather than yellow. No I.D. yet. Will probably post soon.

weather Monday 9 Feb: ~4.30 20.8 degrees C, 21%. WSW 7 knots, overcast.
Today's range 12.5 - just over 24 degrees C.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bug season & sharav

Nymph Isophya(savignyi?) (bush cricket) A tiny specimen (~ 1 cm) I found on a thistle leaf amongst some nasturtiums while all the guys were busy with the cave. Isn't he cute?

This pic husband took last thursday in our kitchen, on the shutters by the back porch. It appears to be some kind of brown lacewing type, one of the Neuroptera.

This pic Moshe took inside the cave.. a slender centipede just over 20 cm long.

It's now 'Tu Bishvat' - the 15th day i.e.. full moon of the month of Shvat the 'official' beginning of spring in Israel and the almond trees are beginning to blossom. We customarily celebrate the day by enjoying a variety of fruits, many of them candied.

I could hear a graceful warbler Prinia gracilis for much of the day from somewhere in or near the garden, singing and calling, as well as house sparrows and laughing doves. Blackbirds singing, great tit briefly in song and we heard a great spotted cuckoo again in the pines somewhere north of the central trail. My youngest son, Avremi, was with us today too so we explained how the male of the pair distracts the crows, leading them away on a merry chase while the female sneaks into the nest and lays her egg or eggs.

The most notable first today was a sighting of a SWIFT! Apus Alone and quite high over north valley/valley road north end area. They usually arrive third week of February, I don't ever recall them arriving so early but those southerly winds help! Today is also the first day of the season I've heard the coo of a collared dove Streptopelia decaocto, coming from a pine near the start of valley road. Eurasian sparrowhawk over north valley at dusk. Some Eurasian jays about the forest though quiet, and jackdaws.

On Thursday Moshe found a ground nest of caterpillars (low tent of woven silk) that had yet to hatch by valley road. Today the caterpillars were mostly already about half a centimetres long and all dark.

The boys went down into the boulder pit today to look around. Moshe saw evidence of mortaring on the walls in there and the ground is covered with dust, quite dry. Given the shape of the hill outside this cavity would not fill up with rainwater, it would drain to the sides if it hit the surrounding rocks. His theory is that this little 'room' under the boulder was used for storage in the past, which seems reasonable to me.

While they were down there I just checked out the surrounding hillside for plants. More of the succulent red stuff and a related succulent, very similar but not red with the tiny white petals. More Nonea, lots more Bellevalia, nasturtium and asphodel at its glorious peak. Many thistle leaves developing well, especially milk thistle, but not the flower stalks yet. We also found more star of Bethlehem but seem they close up toward sunset, and more red anemones on the north facing slope of north valley.

Weather: Sunday Feb 8 11.5-just under 18, then fell till just after 6 p.m. then started to rise AGAIN into the evening.. so that now, nearly 9.30 p.m. it's actually *warmer* than it was at the peak of the day (2 p.m. ) Winds had been E/ESE during our walk but now veered SSE and picked up.. afternoon overcast and airborne dust.. I think we've got ourselves our first sharav!
This is a dry southerly desert wind but I never remember getting one so early in the season.
Humidity was about 33% at the time of our walk and has now dropped under 20%

Saturday, February 7, 2009

First cuckoo and other delights

This beautiful member of the pea family has been blooming pretty much non stop all winter along the sides of valley road.

Gazelles: Moshe told us he saw a good size group of gazelle earlier in the day with Aharon, his older brother.. not sure of the number as they were on the move, but 10 or so. North gazelle field/hill area.
hyrax: plenty active along valley road, one mature individual was at least 20 feet up a cypress!
reptiles: Moshe noticed at least two tortoises. Today a group of children came to our door having also found a tortoise and asking advice on how to keep it. Moshe advised them to return it to where they found it if they don't have a garden, (most of our neighbours don't as they live in upper floors of the apartment buildings) otherwise let it roam the garden and feed it on salad vegetables such as lettuce.

Bird of the day today was great spotted cuckoo Clamator glandarius call from somewhere in the pines just north of central trail. Now the crows are about to start breeding they're back and ready to take advantage! check out:
At first I took it for a variation of kingfisher call but was not happy with that.. it took me a little while to realize what I was hearing since I hadn't heard that call in months! I checked with Uzi Paz and they are known to arrive this early.
White wagtail: heard briefly at best.
House sparrows:heard in the garden all day.
laughing doves: Heard in the garden, cooing.
Hooded crows: heard and seen around.. This year's breeding birds are scattered through the forest now, claiming tall trees for their nesting sites. Non breeders flocking as usual up on windsurfer hill.
Jackdaws: flock 100+ very vocal and active between Hizmeh and windsurfer hill.
Jays: relatively quiet today.
Feral pigeons: about the tops of buildings
some small bands of roaming finches about, hard to tell what in flight.
Blackbirds: song starting almost 4.30 p.m. near the house, tzeet alarm and chakchak heard many times.
Chukar partridges: calls heard down in the pines north valley somewhere.
Stone curlews: heard from the house late friday night from direction of east gazelle field.
Sunbirds: melodious calls from cape honeysuckle as early as 6.30 a.m.
Graceful warblers:calls heard in cape honeysuckle and around much of the day.
Syrian woodpeckers: some calls, some light drumming heard.
Bulbuls: calls in the garden.
Great tits:some calls, full song heard briefly from garden/s nearby early afternoon.

Weather for Saturday 7 Feb: temp range: 8.75 - just over 16 degrees C. Time of walk (~4.30 p.m.): ~14.5 degrees C, 65% humidity, winds westerly 1-4 knots.

This pic was actually taken in November but better late than never! Another nice example of the tenacity of life. It seems to be growing out of the bare rock but I'm sure it's utilizing some tiny crevice or hole to take root. The leaves are succulent with a peach like almost hairy surface.
both pics taken by Akiva, (husband). More of Moshe's soon, I promise!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

More photos by Moshe

First red anemone of the season! Anemone coronaria. Found by Moshe under the pines in the partial shade of Podonosma, golden drop.

These beetles were all found within the same square metre on the bank of the north valley watercourse where it crosses the back of gazelle valley, out in the open. I put them all together for the photo but when we found them they were a little more spread out. All look the same (Adesmia abbreviata or related Darkling beetle) and all lacked their heads. Ruling out miniature headless horsemen I'd guess one of the local insect eating birds left these. Stone curlews, black redstarts and quite a few other open country birds eat insects.

These plant bugs are quite common on the asphodels at the moment. One of the Heteroptera. That narrows it down! Joking. If we find out which I'll post it here later.

Found! Thanks to site easily identified as Capsodes infuscatus, otherwise known as Mirid bug.

These little caterpillars Moshe found on a plant I've dubbed 'miniature triffids'.. because of the three fold parts which seem to be opened seedpods. Moshe found quite a few little caterpillar ground nests though the caterpillars in those weren't hatched out yet.