Whenever I see an article or hear a person dismiss birding as boring, I think, “Oh, bite me.” I mean, how often does a person have an opportunity and good reason to be near a mine field? If anything will take you to those sorts of places, it’s birding. One of the areas we visited while in Israel was the Golan Heights an area just under 700 square miles that is right along the Israel/Syria border and includes Mount Herman. The above photo was taken in the Valley of Tears an area marked in Israel’s recent history by being the site of a huge battle during the Yom Kippur War. Our purpose for visiting the area was to find a snazzy looking bird Finsch’s wheatear and Calandra larks which we did get but I was unable to get close enough for a digiscopable shots (so follow the links to see what awesome birds those are).
Another bird we got was a Syrian woodpecker which can be found throughout Israel but this one was especially exciting being so close to the Syrian border. How close were we to that border at the Valley of Tears?
Literally down the road. The buildings you can barely make out ahead…that’s Syria!
Here’s a digiscoped image of the city across the Syrian border. We had to really work for the birds in the Valley of Tears but I think part of the challenge is that you are surrounded by so much history and strange terrain and you can’t help but stop and think, “Holy crap, we’re on the border with Syria and not only does this seem a little dangerous, the surrounding area is incredibly beautiful!”
We saw several interesting mammals too. Above is a rock hyrax which I thought was another fancy term for groundhog or marmot but turns out the closest relative of the hyrax is the elephant. For realz! We also foxes running around the Valley of Tears too.
Another spectacular part of the Golan Heights is Mount Hermon. The highest peak is over 9000 feet and we got to about 7300 feet where you can view various observation posts that watch the mountains, since this borders Lebanon, Israel and Syria.
You can visit this area on your own, even if you are not an Israeli citizen and you have a rental car. Because it is a military outpost, you have to get permission from the guards to let you in. But if all is safe and clear they will let up no problem.
And you just can’t help but take time for wacky photos (like the above of Tim Appleton snapping a photo of Bill Oddie). This was actually on top of Mount Hermon. This was one of the most beautiful spots we visited. Have I mentioned how grateful I was that Bill Oddie was on this trip? If you’ve never met me face to face, you may not realize that I’m only five feet tall. I’m generally the shortest person in the group and not being used to high elevation, I have a tendency to fall behind as taller, more eager to list birders race ahead. Mr. Oddie is very similar in height to me so it was nice to have some company in the back of the group.
While birding around this military base we saw lots of familiar birds: horned larks–the birds who were a constant companion to me during my eagle surveys this summer and fall! But we also did quite a bit of birding at a nearby ski area.
One of the target birds here was a rock nuthatch (I dare you not to sing that like the B-52s song Rock Lobster). Like our nuthatches here in the states only a bit bigger and they forage around rocks rather than trees. They also sound a bit like canyon wrens.
We actually got to see a rock nuthatch nest. And unlike our nuthatches in the States, they build these crazy burrows onto the sides of rocky cliffs. They construct them out of mud and dung (lovely). In the above nest you can even make out some beetle casings, our guide told us that they rubbed those on the outside, perhaps as an insect repellent.
While we were watching the nuthatch, some of our group go very excited when they found a wolf. I got the above photo holding my iPhone to my scope. When I saw it I said, “That looks like a coyote.” Our Israeli guide has spent some time doing bird work in the US and said that the wolves in Israel are much smaller than the timber wolf that I’m accustomed to in Minnesota. It was still a really cool mammal to add to our trip list. There were actually two wolves but I was only able to get a shot of one.
Another bird people were really excited to see and we worked really hard to get was a sombre tit (insert 13 year old giggle here). Which I had a tough time seeing and when I finally did it was because Pete Dunne said, “Chickadee.” And sure enough, the somber tit looks an awful lot like our black-capped chickadee here in the states. The head and bill shape is a bit different but this bird did look somber compared to all the great tits working the same area it was (insert another 13 year old giggle here).
This is Nimrod Fortress which you pass on your way up to the Golan Heights, it was built in the 1220a. Most of my photos from this portion are of scenery than birds, but you can get some great ones. We also got imperial eagle, golden eagle, mistle thrush, black redstart and rock bunting.
Again, don’t let the proximity to the borders make you nervous. This is a very safe and welcoming area…and unlike fam tours that I’ve had in a few other countries, we didn’t have a police escort the whole time.
And don’t worry about asking the border guards at the border–they are really friendly…and did I mention that I’m only five feet tall?
A couple of notes about clothing for Mount Hermon–our guide warned us to pile on the clothes because the mountain weather is unpredictable, no matter what the forecast says. I didn’t have long underwear on, but had it been a smidge colder I would have wanted it. Take layers, take a scarf, ear muffs, gloves and wool socks.