Lahav Forest: Birding Site at Ein Rimon

Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
A grove of Mount Atlas mastic trees attracts song birds migrating to Africa during the autumn season.

KKL-JNF began to plant Lahav Forest in the 1950s, and Israeli nature-lovers are intimately acquainted with the numerous attractions of this woodland in the southern Judean Foothills: the remains of the Byzantine synagogue at Hurvat Rimon; Khirbat Abu Hof, famed for its ruined churches, its columbarium, and the Joe Alon Center’s Museum for Bedouin Culture and its educational visitors’ center, which introduces tourists to the geography of the northern Negev.
These attractions have now been joined by the bird-research station that KKL-JNF Wings (Kanfei KKL), Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund’s countrywide ornithological network, has established at Lahav Forest’s Ein Rimon (“Pomegranate Spring”). A number of very good reasons lie behind this choice of location.
  • How to get there

    The most convenient way to get to Ein Rimon is to drive north along Highway 6 from the Alonit gas station at the Lakia Interchange (there is no charge for using this section of the highway). After continuing for four kilometers it’s time to slow down and start paying attention: at kilometer post 4.5, an inconspicuous but well-maintained exit road branches off to the right and leads you into Lahav Forest as it twists to the right and brings you to a crossroads around 450 meters further on. Here you turn right again and continue for about 150 meters until you reach a small parking lot.
  • Opening hours

    Open all hours
  • Entrance fee

    Free
  • Geographic location-

    Southen Judean Plain foothills
  • Area-

    south
  • Special attractions-

    Lookout point, birdwatching
  • Access-

    Special (adapted for the disabled)

Before setting out we recommend that you call KKL-JNF’s Forest Hotline (Kav LaYaar) at 1-800-350-550 or email moked1@kkl.org.il for any updates, such as closures due to extreme weather and any information that may be relevant to your route.

The KKL-JNF Wings site at Ein Rimon

In the 1980s KKL-JNF varied the monotony of the conifer forest by adding native fruit trees and stands of Mount Atlas mastic trees (Pistacia atlantica). One of these stands, which is situated in the south of forest, slightly to the north of Highway 6, was planted in the upper reaches of the Grar Stream gully, which at this point begins its journey towards the plains of the Western Negev.

A little bird told me that this deceptively ordinary-looking mastic-tree grove that was planted to add variety to the forest has become a landmark for small songbirds that pass through the area during their autumn migration to Africa. Lahav Forest is more or less the last stop before the desert begins. In the autumn, Mount Atlas mastic trees produce large quantities of fruit that is especially rich in oil, and many birds pause here for a pit stop before continuing their exhausting journey.

During the migration season Lahav Forest also serves as a nighttime roost for raptors, and as eight o’clock in the morning approaches, the air warms up and thermals develop, these hefty birds use the warm air currents that rise skywards to help them ascend.

For these two reasons KKL-JNF Wings has embraced the area and transformed it into an ornithological site that now forms part of the birding network that the organization is deploying throughout the country. There is a small classroom here – just five metal tables and a bench – to accommodate groups that come to observe the birds and learn about the research underway at the site. KKL-JNF has also provided an explanatory sign that on one side describes the function of the research station and on the other displays photographs of several bird species frequently observed in the area during the autumn migration season, such as the black-eared wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica), the lesser whitethroat (Sylvia curruca), the western Orphean warbler (Sylvia hortensis) and the common redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus).

The Mount Atlas mastic tree grove

Long-term monitoring at Ein Rimon shows that with the passing years this stand of Mount Atlas mastic trees has become one of Israel’s most important autumn bird-migration stopover points, and dozens of small songbird species visit it during the runup to winter. During autumn black-eared wheatears, which gather at this site more densely than anywhere else in Israel – and perhaps in the entire world – predominate. Other varieties such as the common chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) and the black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) spend the whole winter here. Among those that nest in the grove in summertime are the woodchat shrike (Lanius senator), the common blackbird (Turdus merula) and various types of greenfinch (Carduelis chloris). And in their wake, birdwatching enthusiasts and researchers eager to understand the phenomenon have similarly thronged to the site.

On a December day we met up here with Dr. Eyal Shohat, an active ornithologist since 1978, an ecologist who specializes in birds, the academic director of Yeruham’s Hoopoe Center for Ornithology and Ecology, and a researcher at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. He was accompanied by Adi Domer, a doctoral student engaged in researching bird nutrition during migration. In the course of her MA studies under the supervision of Dr. Shohat, she has researched the effect of Mount Atlas mastic tree fruit on the weight-gain rate of birds who stop over in Ein Rimon Forest during their autumn migration. Our conversation with her was highly instructive.

The fruit of the Mount Atlas mastic tree, which contains around 53% oil and ripens exactly during migration season, is what attracts the songbirds to the site. They remain there for up to two weeks, which is considered a comparatively long time, and during their stopover they store up fat that supplies them with the energy necessary to continue their journey. However, although the fruit they eat is rich in oil, it contains little sugar, and in the autumn the area is dry and offers no natural sources of water.

So, how much weight have you gained?

Research carried out at Ein Rimon about a decade ago revealed that adding water to drinking basins during the autumn substantially increased the population density of the Eurasian blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), a small songbird that nests all over Europe and winters in Africa. Additional water was also found to increase the rate at which individual members of the species gained weight.

In autumn 2014 and 2015 the experiment was broadened with the support of funding from KKL-JNF’s chief scientist, and the songbirds’ weight-gain rate was recorded at three sites in the Negev: Ein Rimon, Sde Boker and Yeruham Park. Sde Boker has a small grove of Mount Atlas mastic trees, while Yeruham Park, which has no grove of this kind, boasts a plentiful supply of water. During the experiment researchers caught birds, ringed them, weighed them and estimated the amount of fat visible in the hollow of the breast and the lower belly. Some birds were caught twice or more during their stay at the site.

At the research sites local workers constructed water basins consisting of shallow holes in the ground about 80 centimeters in diameter. The bottom of each hole was lined with impermeable sheeting and the basins were topped with local stones to help them blend in with their surroundings.

This experiment showed that added water at the Ein Rimon site enabled the birds to put on weight more quickly, and that when sugar water was added, they plumped up still further. In Yeruham and Sde Boker, however, no changes in the weight-gain rate were noted. In the case of Yeruham Park, the explanation for this would appear to be the continual presence of available water and abundant food, which rendered the effects of any additional food and water marginal. The Sde Boker results, however, remain an enigma: the migratory birds did not put on weight and they left the site after only a brief stay. Now, guided by the findings of the experiment, KKL-JNF Wings staff will add fruit trees and water sources to all sites in order to improve their suitability as a habitat for migratory birds.

The Ein Rimon Well

Some 50 meters to the east of the site’s instruction area, at the side of the road, is a well that appears to be built upon ancient foundations. During the British mandate concrete was poured around the well mouth, which today is covered by a grille. This is Ein Rimon Well, which takes its name from the Hurvat Rimon ruins about two kilometers distant to the east. The Arabic name for the site is Ein Kuhleh (“Kohl Spring”). Kohl, which is derived from lead sulfide, is used in many parts of the world as a cosmetic to ornament and protect the eyes. However, as we are unaware of any history of the mining of galena - the naturally occurring form of lead sulfide - in the area, KKL-JNF would be very glad to hear from any readers who can cast light on the source of this Arabic name for the well.

The Ein Rimon grove has suffered from drought in recent years, and part of it has been cut down to make room for the construction of Highway 6. In an attempt to restore the site, local forester Moshe Mordechai has begun to water some of the trees in summertime, and plans for the coming year including the planting of bushes and trees around the well to improve the energy balance of the migratory songbirds. The saltbushes beside the well that were planted years ago to provide grazing produce seeds that attract Spanish sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis).

At the request of Eyal Shohat, KKL-JNF will plant the area around the well with fruit trees, which will attract numerous insects that will serve as a food source for the birds. In addition, fig trees, for example, attract warblers of various kinds in late spring and early autumn, and thymelaea bushes, which are characteristic of this area, produce fruit that is particularly attractive to greenfinches. To provide food for the spring migration, when the mastic trees are not yet producing fruit, plots of trees that that have a spring fruiting season will be planted adjacent to the mastic tree stand. The planting of different varieties of eucalypt is also important, as their flowers, which are conspicuous from afar, can be expected to attract nectar-loving birds from considerable distances away.

Tips for birdwatching at Ein Rimon

Raptors: The European honey buzzard(Pernis apivorus), the Levant sparrowhawk (Accipiter brevipes), the lesser spotted eagle (Aquila pomarina) and numerous other species roost overnight in Lahav Forest from the end of August until the middle of October. To observe them, we recommend arriving at the site before 8 a.m. and looking northwards: flocks of raptors fly low over Ein Rimon, and at the height of the season they continue their aerial display until after 9 a.m.

Songbirds: Make your way to the level of the gully immediately above the stand of mastic trees, sit down there quietly and observe the birds in the grove. If there is water in the basins, the birds can be watched from a distance that does not interfere with their activities. In any case, it’s important to equip yourself with a good pair of binoculars.

The community and Ein Rimon

KKL-JNF staff very much want to get local communities involved in various activities at the site, to help with protection and monitoring.

Acknowledgements

Text: Yaakov Skolnik
Photography: Yaakov Skolnik and Talila Livschitz, KKL-JNF Northern Negev Community and Forests Director
Published on January 11th, 2017.
Read the original article in Hebrew on eYarok