Herping the holy land, day 1, "No nonven snakes in Israel"

Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Cyprus

Herping the holy land, day 1, "No nonven snakes in Israel"

Postby Kristian Munkholm » Fri Jun 03, 2011 12:03 am

From May 20 through May 24 this year I was in Israel herping across the country from north to south. This account, the first of probably four, is my feeble attempt to convey the experience of my first day there.

I landed in Tel Aviv at 4.10 in the morning after a night of at most one hour's sleep on the plane. After making it through customs and security check at the airport I went to pick up my rental car and headed straight for the field in central Israel to make the most of the morning before it got too hot. As with the other locations I visited I am deeply indebted to Guy Haimovitch and Aviad Bar for their great help in making this trip such a success. Due to delays at the airport and car rental agency I was in the field somewhat later than I had hoped for but there should still be time for a couple of hours of morning activity. I knew of no details regarding this locality so I simply stopped at the first place that looked promising. Immediately after getting out of my car I spotted the first herp of the trip - a bridled skink, Trachylepis vittata. Shortly thereafter came the first Sinai fanfingered gecko, Ptyodactylus guttatus, (no pictures yet of either of these) then a starry agama, Laudakia stellio. This was starting out rather well :)

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All of these species would prove abundant throughout the area. The second starry agama fled from the rock it was basking on to the underside of another rock. I leaned over to see if I could get a picture of it and while this didn't really come out I did notice something in the crack beneath the rock behind the agama. After all of about 10 minutes of searching and by pure dumb luck I had already found my first target species :D

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If you can't make out what it is in the picture, don't worry, you'll see more of them ;)

Under another rock I found my first scorpion, a juvenile Buthotus judaicus.

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On my way back to the car I saw an ocellated skink, Chalcides ocellatus, a species I knew from Malta last year. Now as then I failed to get a picture. I did take a couple of shots of the view though.

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I also caught a glimpse of some lacertid. At first I thought it was just another Trachylepis darting off but I could see from the tail protruding from the hole in which it hid that the scales were much too coarse and it could only be a lacertid. I can merely guess as to the species, my best bet is Phoenicolacerta laevis.

The next two short stops further down weren't really all that productive. At the first I spotted this beautiful spider along with a bunch of large grasshoppers.

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At the second, at a little stream in the valley where I felt sure I would find something all I saw was fish and freshwater crabs, Potamon potamios.

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All over the area the birdlife was magnificent with jays, kestrels, bee eaters, chukars, several species of herons, storks, cranes, beautiful but invasive parrots, etc.

By now I was really getting tired and it was already late in the morning and quite hot. I should still have time for one more stop before my midday break though. In the foothills I came across a spot that looked interesting and parked my car to have a look. At first all I found were more Trachylepis, along with my first solfugid, a tiny one hiding beneath a rock. As opposed to the other solfugids I found later in my trip this one could actually be photgraphed since it just stayed there. Once they start moving it is really impossible to get them to stand still.

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As there was a lack of herps to photograph I tried wwith a nice little beetle in a pretty plant.

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Before getting back into car I juuust had to do a brief check of the curb on the other side of the road where a pile of boulders were strewn across a small slope down to the field below.

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As I approached there was a loud rustling in the leaves in front of me. By the sound of it I suspected some medium sized mammal so I was quite surprised when I saw a serpentine shape disappear into the tall grass. I only saw the hind part of the animal and it took me a while to make sense of the image so I didn't grab for it. The animal was wrist thick and patternless brown. The only animal fitting that description that would make that amount of noise fleeing - something a snake would never do - is a large scheltopusik, Pseudopus apodus.

Upon seeing this of course I had to check the rock pile little more thoroughly. Again there were plenty of Trachylepis (still no pictures), Laudakia and Ptyodactylus.

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Among the rocks I found a small cave of sorts where the ground was covered in the droppings of some carnivore, I'm guessing fox or jackal.

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Next, I found the slough of a large palestinian viper, Daboia palaestinae. I was hoping to find the snake that had cast it when instead I was alerted by a sound somewhat akin to what I imagine a rattlesnake must sound like coming from a meter below my feet. At the edge of the rock I was standing on a huge saw scaled viper, Echis coloratus, rattled its serrated belly scales in warning.

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What a magnificent spot this was proving to be. On the border of two different habitat types and climate zones you really could get the best of both worlds with northern species like Pseudopus and southern desert species like Echis found within three meters of each other :D

On the edge of field at the foot of the rocks I caught a quick glimpse of what I suppose must have been some slender and fast colubrid disappearing into a bush. I didn't see enough to make out an ID though.

Driving back to get a bite to eat and a place to rest for the afternoon I passed a couple of these large millipedes, Archispirostreptus syriacus. By the evening they were all over the place.

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I had a falafel and a grapefruit juice in the nearby town to replenish some energy then started looking for a place to sleep. I had brought my tent and hadn't decided in advance whether to stay in a room or sleep outdoors but if I was to stay fit for the evening's road cruising I really needed a rest and in these conditions that would come a lot easier with an A/C unit nearby. So I found a room in a youth hostel and after a couple of hours napping and a dip in the pool I felt almost reborn. This area of Israel is quite religious and as the shabbat was about to begin the town had all but completely shut down and I had some trouble finding a place to eat or buy supplies. In the end of course I managed and after a quick dinner I headed back out into the field.

Before leaving Denmark I had talked to Guy and Aviad about perhaps meeting with them in the evening for a cruise but as I had tried in vain to get a hold of them I figured I would be spending the evening on the road by myself. There was still some daylight left though, and first I wanted one more stop on foot. As I didn't want to waste the time looking for a spot I headed back to the first place I had stopped in the morning where I felt there might still be more to be seen. I was right. In addition to the usual suspects (finally got a pic of Trachylepis) I found a large and beautiful gold skink, Eumeces schneideri, and a couple of cute little juniper skinks, Ablepharus rueppellii, all under rocks. Sadly, I didn't get pictures of either.

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I found a few cool inverts as well - beetles, a giant ant lion, Palpares sp., and three species of scorpion - Nebo hierchonticus, Leiurus quinquestriatus (the infamous deathstalker), and an adult Buthotus judaicus.

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While walking around up there I finally got in touch with Guy and Aviad. They were on their way out and we agreed to meet at a nearby gas station an hour later. Upon arrival we all got into Guy's car and hit the road, eyes glued to the windshield. They had warned me in advance we might find nothing but geckoes but we had our hopes set for more ;)

The first animal we braked for was a mantis preying on an ant. Soon after came the first snake, an Echis coloratus. Immediately after that, another snake, one of my most eagerly hoped for species, the black mole viper, Atractaspis engaddensis. Everything about this snake fascinates me, from its eel like movement so unlike that of any other venomous species I know, to its shiny black or gray scales, perfect cylindrical body shape and ability to strike with its mouth closed, fangs protruding from the side of the mouth - simply a gorgeous creature. Unfortunately, however, it simple refused to lie still and was quite impossible to photograph.

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From here on the animals just kept popping up in quick succession - a couple of turkish geckoes, Hemidactylus turcicus, a Ptyodactylus, two more Echis, one more Atractaspis (just as impossible to photograph as the first one), two Daboia, the impressive Saga ephippigera (a huge carnivorous grasshopper), a couple of mole crickets (Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa), a barn owl (Tyto alba), bats, various rodents (Mus musculus, Meriones tristrami, Gerbillus sp.), foxes (Vulpes vulpes), a mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon), a jungle cat (Felis chaus), etc.

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By now I was saying to Guy and Aviad that I simply didn't believe Israel had any non venomous snakes as all nine I had seen until then could have killed me. It didn't take long for me to be proven wrong courtesy of a dice snake, Natrix tessellata. Sadly it had just been hit by a car and its guts were spilling out onto the road. The snake must have been extremely unlucky since there were almost no other cars on the road this evening. When we found it the snake was still alive but it obviously had no chance for survival so we put it out of its misery and threw it into the bushes.

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OK, so there had been a non venomous snake in Israel - last one, then. Wrong again, of course. We had just driven out of the area where I had hoped to see another target species when we spotted my quarry on the side of the main road - a lovely little sand boa, Eryx jaculus, a species so deliciously "tactile" it makes a field nut like me dream of becoming a keeper.

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We took the boa with us a couple of hundred meters and released it away from the main road, hoping thus to improve its chances not to be run over.

By now it was getting late and the level of activity had clearly decreased. On our way back we came across a large scorpion that has been tentatively ID'ed for me as Androctonus bicolor though I can't quite make that fit as its colouration seems too light, its tail too thin, and its pedipalps too large - perhaps another Nebo?

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Finally, we found one last snake, a sweet little palestine kukri snake, Rhynchocalamus melanocephalus. Somehow this had also managed to get hit by one of the cars that there didn't seem to be any of on the road. It too, was still alive but clearly without hope of survival.

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Kristian Munkholm
 
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 1, "No nonven snakes in Israel"

Postby Aviad Bar » Fri Jun 03, 2011 5:39 am

Nice findings

Happy to know that you found many species that were on your target list.

The blake scorpion with the thin stomach is “Nebo”

Aviad
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 1, "No nonven snakes in Israel"

Postby Daniel Thie » Fri Jun 03, 2011 7:24 am

congrats on the interesting findings!!

since I am impatiently trying to find more than I managed to do so far - what road did you drive along!? I understand it was somewhere in the southern Jordan valley? And what time is recommended? So far, I looked mostly between sunset and midnight, but given the scarce results, maybe that's still too early?

Anyway, looks like you had a great time & thx for sharing!

Dan
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 1, "No nonven snakes in Israel"

Postby Bobby Bok » Fri Jun 03, 2011 9:35 am

Amazing finds for just driving along a road, it seems Israel is growing out to be more and more popular among herpers, should pay the country a visit as well soon :)
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 1, "No nonven snakes in Israel"

Postby Jürgen Gebhart » Fri Jun 03, 2011 10:21 am

Congrats Kristian!!!
Great findings and some nice pics!!!!!!!!

You found "my snake", these pics are killing me!!! I have to go back soon, very soon!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 1, "No nonven snakes in Israel"

Postby Kristian Munkholm » Fri Jun 03, 2011 6:50 pm

Thanks for the kind comments to all of you :)

Aviad Bar wrote:Happy to know that you found many species that were on your target list.Aviad


Well as you know, everything was on my list - some things were just a bit higher on the list than others ;)

... besides, I would never have been so succesful without your help.

Aviad Bar wrote:The blake scorpion with the thin stomach is “Nebo”


Thanks for the confirmation.

Daniel Thie wrote:since I am impatiently trying to find more than I managed to do so far - what road did you drive along!? I understand it was somewhere in the southern Jordan valley? And what time is recommended? So far, I looked mostly between sunset and midnight, but given the scarce results, maybe that's still too early?


I'm sorry, but out of respect for the confidentiality of Guy and Aviad I can't disclose any detailed locations. In terms of timing, you should be right on the money, though. These snakes were all found between 20.08 and 22.46. I guess your issue is rather one of location and luck. This evening was unusually succesful, Guy and Aviad also said as much. The other two evenings I went road cruising (you'll be able to read about them in the subsequent posts) I found nowhere near as much.

Good luck to you in the future. I'm sure it will pick up ;)

Bobby Bok wrote:Amazing finds for just driving along a road, it seems Israel is growing out to be more and more popular among herpers, should pay the country a visit as well soon


Well, only the ones from the evening were found "just driving along a road" - guess that haul wasn't too bad, though ;)

As for visiting Israel, I can only recommend it :)

Jürgen Gebhart wrote:You found "my snake", these pics are killing me!!!


Yes, and after a full 10 minutes of searching :lol: .

Good luck to you when you do go back :)
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 1, "No nonven snakes in Israel"

Postby Rok Grzelj » Sun Jun 05, 2011 7:28 am

Great posts Kristian!
Eryx is still on my wishlist.....Im jealous ;)
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