Herping the Holy Land, Day 2, Mt. Endemism

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

Herping the Holy Land, Day 2, Mt. Endemism

Postby Kristian Munkholm » Sat Jun 04, 2011 8:59 pm

This is part 2 of 4 detailing my herping adventures in Israel from May 20 through May 24 this year. Part 1 can be found here http://fieldherping.eu/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=774

...After a much needed but all too brief night's sleep I got up early to arrive at my destination for the day in time for the morning's activity. Mount Hermon of biblical fame is the highest mountain in Israel located in the extreme north eastern corner of the Golan Heights. Stretching north into Syria and Lebanon it reaches its peak at 2814 meters a.s.l. on the border between these countries. The highest peak within Israeli controlled territory lies at 2236 meters a.s.l. The massif is home to an astonishing assortment of plant and animal life with a large number of endemic species, a couple of them reptilian.

Driving north through the Golan Heights as the road climbed beautifully into the mountains on the east side of the Sea of Galilee a golden jackal, Canis aureus, suddenly appeared by the roadside. It stayed there quite calmly as I drove close, parked the car and got out my camera. Of course it bolted just before I pressed the button, oh well :?

The next sighting to make note of was a hoopoe, Upupa epops, a few kilometers further north - magnificent birds that have been on my wish list for years.

I arrived at the mountain around nine o'clock and drove up as far as the IDF would allow me. The tense situation in Syria and the border crossing rioters of the previous weekend taken into account some precautionary measures on their behalf were of course understandable.

After getting out of my car it didn't take long for me to find my first lizard, a snake eyed lacertid, Ophisops elegans. These would soon prove extremely abundant on the mountain.

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The next species found, Phoenicolacerta kulzeri, also proved quite abundant, which was interesting given that it is listed by the IUCN as globally endangered. While not endemic to the mountain itself it does have a very limited distribution. Whereas the Ophisops were found running across the ground amidst grass, herbs and rubble, these would stick to basking on the larger rocks and hiding under pieces of larger cover, mainly military scrap.

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On the same rocks I also found plenty of geckoes. Up here in the north of Israel, Ptyodactylus puiseuxi replace their congener found the previous day. The adults attain a very attractive spotted pattern which seems to become more prominent the larger they grow. The juveniles are uniformly gray.

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Suddenly, racing away from my feet was the first snake of the day, a slim patternless brown (I only saw the posterior part of the snake) animal that disappeared hastily into the bushes before I had the sense to grab it. At first I wasn't entirely sure what species I had seen but after looking at pictures and distribution maps I have reached the conclusion that with that colour, size and lack of pattern it must have been a red whip snake, Platyceps collaris, one of the most common species in northern Israel, albeit a beautiful one I had never seen before, and would love to have gotten my hands on for a closer look.

Up here in the mountains the spring flowers were still in full bloom lighting up the slopes with magnificent splashes of colour. Some of them were visited by the wonderful hummingbird hawk-moth, Macroglossum stellatarum. I was walking around thus enjoying the landscape, flowers and wildlife when I was suddenly disturbed by the noisy rummaging about of group of large animals. A flock of 15 or so wild boar, Sus scrofa, adults and young, came down the mountainside digging up the ground foraging along the way. I was tempted to step closer to get a better photograph but felt it wiser instead to take a step back behind the crest.

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Some of the rocks down there looked awfully tempting so I turned over a couple. I had been told before coming down that the season for finding snakes under cover was pretty much over in Israel, but nonetheless under one of them was the second snake of the day, a lovely little Roth's dwarf racer, Eirenis rothi.

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I continued on up the hillside finding plenty more Ophisaurus, Ptyodactylus and Phoenicolacerta as well as a couple of Laudakia stellio and two apparent males of Trachylepis vittata engaged in a fierce combat throwing each other around violently. I was so completely engrossed by the scene that I lost the presence of mind to photograph it before it was too late. This is rather typical of me :oops:

Further up some of the aforementioned scrap lay scattered about, sheets of tin, thick cardboard and the like. Under the first sheet of tin was a small spur thighed tortoise, Testudo graeca. It wouldn't come out of its shell to greet the photographer, though.

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Under and in the cardboard I found four Mount Hermon bowfoot geckoes, Cyrtopodion amictopholis. As hinted at by its name this was one of my targeted endemics, another species globally red listed as endangered. I only got pictures (and bad ones at that) of one individual, an atypically light yellowish one with a strange regenerated tail. To see what a typical specimen looks like with its characteristic purplish hues, I'll have to refer you to googling other people's pictures.

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Up here, near the top of this slope, the gradient, loose rubble, large rocks and dense bushes made moving about quietly to sneak up on critters rather difficult which is why the perhaps most impressive animal of the day went unphotographed. A huge eastern Montpellier snake, Malpolon insignitus, fled from the rock atop which it was basking into the cracks and bushes behind just as it entered my field of view. I gave it 10 minutes or so to come back out and then tried to sneak up on it from another angle with the exact same result.

By now I felt I had pretty much covered this particular slope so I made my way to higher ground in search of the second endemic, the Mount Hermon viper, Montivipera bornmuelleri. I had more or less been guaranteed succes finding one if I was allowed entry into their primary habitat. I did gain access to this area - by simply crossing the road without being confronted by any authorities - but I didn't find any vipers. Snow still covered the ground on some of the slopes and military scrap was strewn about among the wild tulips at a much greater density than further down. Most of it was innocuous but a few objects served as a reminder of its origin.

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All I found in terms of herps were lots Phoenicolacerta and a couple of Trachylepis and Cyrtopodion as well as a single Chalcides ocellatus (still no pic). These were pretty much all found under tin. Flipping one particular piece I found a Phoenicolacerta grabbing a centipede. The centipede bit back at the lizard which subsequently dropped it and let it go but didn't otherwise seem troubled by the bite. The centipede on the other hand, crawled about awkwardly, clearly severely hurt. Apart from the lizards I also saw a single rodent under the tin - probably the endemic subspecies of the snow vole, Chionomys nivalis hermonis.

On my way back I noticed a couple more sheets of tin that I wanted to check and walked towards them along the road. As I turned the corner by the guard post one of the soldiers approached me and told me I couldn't go any further as the area was closed to civilians. I of course accepted, turned around and made my way back down the mountain without saying that I'd spent the past hour in that particular area. Spending much of my time in Israel in desolate border regions I came into contact with representatives of the IDF a number of times over the course of my stay. Every time I found them to be fair, polite and courteous. I came home with a good deal of respect, rather impressed with the demeanour of these 18 year old boys in the face of the imminent threat they are confronted with every day.

As the day before, by now I needed a nap if I was to be up for any road cruising in the evening so I found a youth hostel where I booked a good bed in a nice clean dormitory I got all to myself with an excellent breakfast buffet included in the more than reasonable price. An equally well assorted dinner buffet was also available at cheap cost - excellent deal :)

After the shortest of naps followed by a hearty dinner I hit the roads of the Golan Heights. Foxes were all over - I think I saw 8 this night - but herping was rather slow, at least compared to the previous night's extravaganza. The first find of the evening almost made it feel like back home, a European green toad, Bufo viridis on a small back road.

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Next up was another Daboia palaestinae on the border to the UN controlled territories.

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As I got out of the car to photgraph the viper and escort it off the road I was greeted by an overwhelming chorus of tree frogs. Sadly they were calling from the other side of the fence so I couldn't get to see them. I drove on with the window down listening to the chorus surrounding me. The frogs kept calling from either the minefields or across the border, though. Finally, I found an accessible roadside ditch. Up until recently the frogs I found there would unanimously be considered Hyla savignyi. However, in latter years ongoing work to sort out of the genetics of the middle eastern tree frogs has resulted in a number of splits and if we follow the work of Gvozdik et. al., 2010, apparently these should now be considered Hyla felixarabica. I have not read the article and even if I had I don´t believe I'd have the advance knowledge to form an educated opinion as to the validity of the new species.

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These were to be the last herps of the evening. On the way back a beech marten, Martes foina, crossed the road in front of me. While this was not a find I ranked particularly high, given that they are not uncommon in Denmark where they are widely regarded as pests when they occupy people's attics, when I told Aviad about my finds the next day this was clearly one that made an impression. Apparently, they are not seen that often in Israel. It's funny how geography plays a huge part in the impression animals make on us ;)
Kristian Munkholm
 
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country: Denmark

Re: Herping the Holy Land, Day 2, Mt. Endemism

Postby Jürgen Gebhart » Sun Jun 05, 2011 6:12 am

Great landscape pics, they hit my heart!!
the Golan hights and the Mount Hermon are full of war trash and Minefields, horrible!!!
Should I say something about the Daboia??? ;)
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Jürgen Gebhart
 
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Re: Herping the Holy Land, Day 2, Mt. Endemism

Postby Kristian Munkholm » Mon Jun 06, 2011 9:46 am

Thanks, Jürgen :)

... & no, you don't have to say anything about the Daboia, I'm beginning to get the picture ;)
Kristian Munkholm
 
Posts: 450
Joined: Tue May 26, 2009 2:04 pm
Hometown: Copenhagen
country: Denmark


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