Although Laura and I had an incredibly successful trip last year (see report here), we didn't see an awful lot of amphibians. That is why we decided to come back in early spring. To enjoy the amphibian reproductive season in full bloom, to see the giant fire salamanders of Mount Carmel and to maybe chance upon seeing some early reptiles. During our short stay in Israel we were incredibly lucky with the weather conditions. We had some small showers during the amphibian-focussed first few days. Later on the temperatures rose because the sun came out more often, allowing us to see some early reptiles. Moreover winter is an excellent time for bird watching in Israel so we kept an eye out for them as well.
24th of February 2018
Although we had hoped to arrive somewhere in the early afternoon, a malfunctioning airplane door spoiled our plans. Three hours later than scheduled, Laura and I arrived in Tel Aviv after an otherwise smooth flight with Easyjet. We had just enough daytime left to check out my favourite chelonids at the Nahal Alexander. The African Softshell Turtles (Trionyx triunguis) were easily spotted, and so were a few Balkan Terrapins (Mauremys rivulata). Also this time there were many ignorant people around - being noisy and annoying - littering all over the place. Sad to see these majestic turtles in such a place. We didn't stay for too long because of this and drove on to Haifa. We easily found our bed and breakfast and after a quick pizza at a nearby restaurant we hit the field. At the first site we saw two tiny Mediterranean Chameleons (Chamaeleo chamaeleon), many Southern Banded Newts (Ommatotriton vittatus), and we heard a few tree frogs calling in the distance. At the second site we could finally get a visual of the Lemon-yellow Tree Frogs (Hyla savignyi) and saw several amplectant couples along with many calling males. In the rocky walls around the waterbassins we could discover our main target for this area. It wasn't a new species for us, but this species gets much bigger here than anywhere else. When we spotted our first Oriental Fire Salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata) peeking out from a hole, we had to laugh because it looked so fake! So huge! A foraging family of Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) completed the evening and we happily fell asleep after a successful first night in Israel.
25th of February 2018
Because our bed and breakfast didn't have breakfast we had to find it elsewhere. On a terrace in the sun we had a yoghurt and some bread and drove up Mt Carmel again. It was rather chilly in the early morning but we found several lizards to be out and about, such as Bridled Skinks (Heremites vittatus), Rüppell's Snake-eyed Skinks (Ablepharus rueppellii) and Hatay Lizards (Phoenicolacerta laevis). After photographing the skinks we headed to another place; a nice slope with many loose rocks, where we found many species such as Green Toad (Bufotes viridis), Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca), Starred Agama (Laudakia stellio), many Ocellated Skinks (Chalcides ocellatus), Bridled Skinks, Gunter's Cylindrical Skink (Chalcides guentheri) and a Narrow-striped Dwarf Snake (Eirenis decemlineatus). After a delicious Shawarma and some grocery shopping we drove towards the Lebanese border. At a known spot, where six out of eight Israeli amphibians are known to occur, we saw in insane amount of Green Toads with many amplectant couples in the water. Also several Lemon-yellow Tree Frogs and larvae of Oriental Fire Salamander were around, and after completing our walk around the pond, I finally saw an Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates syriacus) emerging from its shelter. At a petrol station we bought some dinner and continued herping. In a ditch just next to a small town we searched for one of the world's rarest amphibians. It was sad to see a lot of the vegetation was cut down and there are new constructions going on in direct vicinity to the small stream. Despite this, within literally 2 minutes I found the first Hula Painted Frog (Latonia nigriventer), a very large male. Only at this place we saw our first Levant Water Frogs (Pelophylax bedriagae) as well. When we were almost about to leave, we found a second Hula Painted Frog, a small female with a very contrasty pattern on her belly. After ample admiration of these archaic and enigmatic creatures we drove to our accommodation in Kfar Szold.
26th of February 2018
After a bountiful breakfast we drove towards Agamon Hahula Nature Reserve. In winter time this reserve is home to thousands of migratory birds who all gather here to spend the winter months. This includes 40.000 Common Cranes (Grus grus) which is truly a sight to behold. The lovely trumpeting call of this species is quite deafening when there are so many together! We also saw many other bird species such as Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), White Stork (Ciconia ciconia), Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmaeus), Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus), Greater Spotted Eagle (Aquila clanga) and many others. Also the introduced Coypu (Myocastor coypus) is easily spotted here, which can't be said of the Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) which I had secretly hoped to see. After a few hours of exploring the reserve by golf cart like true birding glitterati, we explored some possible Hula Painted Frog spots and did some sightseeing near the Golan Heights. As the the weather was still rather clouded and chilly, the only herps we found around Sa'ar Falls and Nimrod Castle were a few Hatay Lizards. We had dinner at the Golden Arches and went to a wooded area near the Lebanese border. It didn't take us long to find Oriental Fire Salamanders walking on the road. In the streams around the reserve we also saw Levant Water Frogs and Arabian Tree Frogs (Hyla felixarabica), the latter species completing our list of Israeli amphibians. Inside the wooded area we found over 30 Oriental Fire Salamanders walking around and had good views (but crappy pictures) of two Indian Crested Porcupines (Hystrix indica). Back at the car we were surprised by border police and park rangers who saw our parked car on a security camera. In the middle of nowhere! They didn't mind us being there though and all was fine.
27th of February 2018
Wildlife watching in Israel starts the moment you wake up. During my morning cigarette on the terrace of our bungalow I saw a wide variety of birds such as a hunting Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), a perching White-throated Kingfisher and foraging Palestine Sunbirds (Cinnyris osea). After breakfast we went to Tel Dan and found some more salamanders. Sadly we didn't meet the friendly ranger who helped us so much last year. The lady at the gift shop however did remember us and gave us a nice discount on our souvenirs.
The afternoon we spent at the Meshushim Reserve where we found many basking lizards along the trail. Of course the omnipresent Hatay Lizard and Starred Agamas, but also many Israeli Fan-fingered Geckoes (Ptyodactylus puiseuxi). A long drive along the shores of Lake Tiberias brought us to Gidona where we stayed again in the fabulous Benharim Hotel. Roadcruising with temperatures below 10°C is of course a waste of time, so after an incredibly tasty pizza we made use of the whirlpool and went to bed early.
28th of February 2018
We had a petrol station breakfast while driving up to Mount Gilboa. It was still rather cold in the morning but we soon found several species such as Spur-thighed Tortoise, Ocellated Skink, a small Black Whip Snake (Dolichophis jugularis) and an even smaller Roth's Dwarf Snake (Eirenis rothi). Like last year, Mount Gilboa didn't really deliver what we hoped for, so we drove towards the coast. Here we had arranged an accommodation via Airbnb but when we wanted to do the check-in, our host was nowhere to be found. There was an obscene amount of filth laying around in the garden and the tiny house itself wasn't much better. We decided to try and call later again, and not waste precious daytime. In the dunes of the Nitsanim Sands we found several Bridled Skinks, Starred Agamas and a huge Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus). Under some stones at the inland dunes Laura flipped four Worm Snakes (Xerotyphlops vermicularis) under one stone, and I finally caught my nemesis snake, the Reddish Whip Snake (Platyceps collaris). Very happy we walked back to the car when we discovered a fresh Palestinian Viper track. We would be back here in the morning... We had dinner in the car at the beach and searched at night around a range of ponds. An illegal rave was also taking place so with pounding techno beats and weed fumes we found around 15 Mediterranean Chameleons, many Levant Water Frogs and Lemon-yellow Tree Frogs calling all around us. When we finally reached our host from the airbnb she simply stated she mixed up the dates and needed her filthy hole she called a house for herself. So we had to settle for an extremely overprized hotel in Ashkelon, but were actually a bit relieved not having to sleep in that filthy house.
1st of March 2018
In the morning we searched at the coastal dunes again and saw again Bridled Skinks, Starred Agamas and a Glass Lizard. Also this time there were many Schreiber's Fringe-fingered Lizards (Acanthodactylus schreiberi) running around and I could catch a feisty Schokari Sand Racer (Psammophis schokari). The Palestine Vipers were nowhere to be seen and we headed on. Close to Beit Guvrin we tried to reach some interesting ruins. There was a military exercise going on but luckily we were allowed to enter the area anyway and could pass the roadblock. It didn't take long for Laura to find the first Latast's Limbless Skink (Ophiomorus latastii) after which be both found an additional juvenile. Such contrasty patterned skinks, a true highlight for us to see! In Beit Guvrin itself we herped a bit, but only found a few common species and an insane amount of Rüppell's Snake-eyed Skinks in leaflitter along the roads. While the sun was setting we searched at another possible Palestine Viper place, but only found Bridled Skinks, Starred Agamas, another Glass Lizard and a rather relaxed Golden Jackal. In the early evening we reached Tel Aviv, where we had to find another accommodation because of the airbnb cancellation. In the Golden Arches we had wifi, so we could book another overprized apartment and herped at a protected wetland nearby. Despite its close proximity to the city it proved to be an awesome place for wildlife. We found lots of Levant Water Frogs, Lemon-yellow Tree Frogs, Mediterranean Chameleons, a Southern White-breasted Hedgehog (Erinaceus concolor) and finally also another Eastern Spadefoot Toad.
2nd of March 2018
We set an early alarm to make the most out of our short day. On an industrial site near Tel Aviv we tried to find some snakes, but we didn't have much luck. In Ben Shemen Forest we found some Starred Agamas and as a last herp of the trip, another Reddish Whip Snake. At the airport everything went very smooth and before we knew it, we were on our way back to Amsterdam with a very successful trip behind us!
Make sure to check out Laura's Flickr album as well for even more pictures!
Southern Banded Newt (Ommatotriton vittatus)
Oriental Fire Salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata)
Green Toad (Bufotes viridis)
Arabian Tree Frog (Hyla felixarabica)
Lemon-yellow Tree Frog (Hyla savignyi)
Hula Painted Frog (Latonia nigriventer)
Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates syriacus)
Levant Water Frog (Pelophylax bedriagae)
Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca)
Balkan Terrapin (Mauremys rivulata)
African Softshell Turtle (Trionyx triunguis)
Israeli Fan-fingered Gecko (Ptyodactylus puiseuxi)
Starred Agama (Laudakia stellio)
Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon)
Schreiber's Fringe-fingered Lizard (Acanthodactylus schreiberi)
Hatay Lizard (Phoenicolacerta laevis)
Rüppell's Snake-eyed Skink (Ablepharus rueppellii)
Gunter's Cylindrical Skink (Chalcides guentheri)
Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus)
Bridled Skink (Heremites vittata)
Latast's Limbless Skink (Ophiomorus latastii)
Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus)
Eurasian Worm Snake (Xerotyphlops vermicularis)
Black Whip Snake (Dolichophis jugularis)
Narrow-striped Dwarf Snake (Eirenis decemlineatus)
Roth's Dwarf Snake (Eirenis rothi)
Reddish Whip Snake (Platyceps collaris)
Schokari Sand Racer (Psammophis schokari)
Many thanks to Shani Cohen, Simon Jamison and Assaf Uzan.