Sampling Winter Ponds

By: The Chief Scientist's Unit

Monitoring winter ponds is a fairly serious business, and what in the past was called a "winter puddle" has been upgraded to the level of a "pond" because of the importance of these seasonal water sources both for animals and plants and for humans. This year, during routine monitoring, KKL-JNF workers encountered two very surprising friends, "swimming lengths" in the Hodaya winter pond, not far from Ashkelon.
The winter ponds in Israel are seasonal ponds that fill up mainly in the winter and spring, and support a wide variety of insects, invertebrates and amphibians, which swim in them to their heart's content. In the hydroperiod, during which the pond is full of water, species suited particularly to the conditions of the specific pond appear in it. At the same time the pond provides an essential water source for other animals, which are not residents of the pond – those that live wild in the forests or herds of sheep and goats that are led to it by a shepherd.

Moreover, most winter ponds in Israel are not far from population centers, and attract visitors and picnickers, as well as research and educational activities. Indeed, in a semi-arid country, the previous name, "winter puddles," was definitely not appropriate for all the good that these ponds provide for all comers – animals, plants and humans alike.

Ecologists Dr. Yehonatan Bar-Yosef and Dr. Eldad Elron are responsible for the multi-year monitoring program of the winter ponds in KKL-JNF areas. In 2018 Dr. Elron and ecohydrologist Ori Moran carried out an extensive survey of KKL-JNF's forestry areas with the aim of discovering and characterizing active winter ponds on 48 sites. At the same time, a decision was made in KKL-JNF's Chief Scientist's unit to pay particular attention to wetland habitats and monitor selected ponds in KKL-JNF areas continuously. The aim was to rehabilitate and conserve the ponds optimally, by making precise recommendations on how to look after them.

In 2020, KKL-JNF took the plunge and began the multi-year monitoring program, which includes 30 ponds, from the Galilee and the Golan through the northern coastal plain to the few ponds actually located in the south of Israel. As the winter of 2019–2020 was especially rainy, the period during which the ponds were full was relatively long in most of the water sources that were monitored. This contributed to the abundance of species of invertebrates that appeared in the pond, together with other factors such as the size of the pond, the presence of water-loving (hydrophilic) plants and how many years the pond has existed.

KKL-JNF's pond monitoring program is characterized by quick action and a very short time between the decisions made in meetings in the Chief Scientist's offices and their implementation by the KKL-JNF workers who are present on the site with rain boots and cool hats.

But how long will we keep you in suspense? Who were the unexpected swimmers who according to this article's heading were spotted in the Hodaya winter pond?

Hodaya Pond is in Karmon Forest, which is managed by KKL-JNF, about two hundred meters south-east of Hodaya Junction, not far from Ashkelon. In the past the pond was apparently four times bigger. In recent years, on the initiative of KKL-JNF, Hodaya underwent rehabilitation to improve its hydrology and ecology, and afterwards was made accessible to the public (we recommended adding it to your travel destinations for Winter 2022–23!).

But what? Only two species of amphibians were recorded in Hodaya – the European green toad and the Middle East tree frog – until 2022, or to be more precise, until May 13, 2022, when two developed southern banded newt tadpoles were sampled in the pond for the first time! This cute newt is an amphibian from the salamander family, which belongs to the order of Urodela. From a global point of view, the southernmost place in which the southern banded newt lives is Israel, where it is extremely rare, and is defined as a species in grave danger of extinction and protected by law. In short, if you see a newt, take great care of it.

Until May 2022, it was known that the southern banded newt lives in Berekhya Pond, among other places, more than 2.5 km. from Hodaya Pond as the crow flies, and separated from it by roads, fields, tributaries of Nahal Avtah and Karmon Forest. In other words, a newt who wants to travel to Hodaya Pond can look forward to a good long hike. But reality had the last word: the southern banded newt turned out to be fairly tough, and found its way to Hodaya Pond. Another possibility – no less impressive – is that this rare species traveled to Hodaya from Zemorot Pond, more than 5 km. to the north, as the crow flies.

Whether the southern banded newt migrated from Berekhya or its original neighborhood was Zmurot, there are two possible ways of explaining the presence of the new tenant in Hodaya Pond: the first is that the body of the southern banded newt is strong and can withstand such exhausting journeys, and the second is that there are additional wetland habitats on the way, between the different winter ponds, which are not yet known to KKL-JNF's researchers. Will additional representatives of the species be discovered later in the monitoring program in new ponds? It's possible! At the moment it seems that the southern banded newt doesn't care about the obstacles in its path.