Up close and personal with the lesser water boatman and the non-biting midge
Puddling around Israel’s winter pools, enjoying the tiny creatures that live in them and the beautiful routes around them
If you are anything like me, you know next to nothing about the strange little creatures that thrive in this area’s winter puddles. Ranging from the Middle East tree frog and fairy shrimp to the lesser water boatman and non-biting midge, they require a very specific habitat to survive. In fact, in order to be effective, winter puddles – also known as winter pools – must dry up in the summer.
We learned all this and more, on a winter’s jaunt with Talila Livshutz, community and forests director in the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund’s northern Negev District. Along with winter puddles, our marvelously varied route featured vast carpets of wildflowers as well as recreational sites, monuments and a now-defunct reservoir.
Our first stop was at the Shafir Winter Pool, just south of Kiryat Malachi. Long ago, Shafir was a typical winter pool, filling with rain during the wet season and drying up in summer. Settlers planted eucalyptus trees in the water, apparently hoping to drain what they thought was a large, annoying puddle. But the eucalyptus trees, instead of drying up the water, dropped leaves full of toxic chemicals into the pool. And development of roads, industry and settlement in the area since 1948 more or less destroyed the pool and its inhabitants.
In 2006, the local council decided to rehabilitate the pool as part of an ecological park. Inaugurated six years later, and potentially filled with water all year round, the pool is now the major attraction in a large and beautiful recreational area with lush eucalyptus trees reflected in the water.
A path through the park ends at a touching monument dedicated to Dutch-born Dani Stahl. A pilot in the Israel Air Force, Stahl was participating in training maneuvers in 1956 when his mosquito aircraft went into a tailspin and crashed nearby.
Our second stop was at lovely Hodaya Winter Puddle. Located 500 meters east of Hodaya Junction, it was rehabilitated by the JNF last year.
Winter pools are seasonal bodies of water fed mainly by rain and overflowing streams – and sometimes, shallow aquifers. The water does not sink into the earth because the bottom of each pool is sealed with a non-porous clay.
Historically, villagers were not only sensitive to the ecological importance of winter pools, but used them in their day to day life. They would use the water for their flocks and their crops, the silt for building their homes. When they dried up in summer, the damp ground became ideal for growing watermelon.
But once the country’s development went into high gear during the last century, water that had been flowing naturally into the pool disappeared. And along with it, the tiny little creatures that had been living and growing inside. This particular pool suffered the same damage, especially when an area farmer built an embankment so that rainwater would collect in his fields. That, however, prevented the water from flowing into the pool. Fortunately, he was persuaded to knock it down, and nature is again taking its course.
A few years ago Livshutz stumbled upon articles on the subject and read about the Hodaya pool, noticing that it filled up every winter and dried up every summer.
Hopefully, she thought, it could be turned into a functioning winter pool. With the help of Sarah Ohayon, head of Winter Puddles at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, she made the rounds of historic pools — as well new ones created by the SPNI in other parts of the country in order to save our amphibians.
After an extensive survey of the Hodaya Pool, and determining how deep they could dig without harming the clay on the bottom, work began. The pool – which was only 20 centimeters in depth – was deepened in one portion to nearly a meter and a half. This made it possible for at least part of the pool to remain wet until egg-laying season was over.
Visitors: don’t try to pass through the masses of flora surrounding the pool in order to get closer to the water, for your feet will get wet. You can walk a wooden bridge, instead. Recently completed, it has made the entire area – which includes a lovely park – wheelchair accessible.
The last body of water we toured was the Adurayim Reservoir, located in Amazia Forest near Lachish. We walked to the reed-lined water through a field of blooming asphodels. They say that desert hermits, who subsisted mainly on wild plants, favored asphodels above all others.
In the early 1960s, an attempt was made to dam up desert wadis and use the resulting water to irrigate peach, apricot and almond orchards, along with fruit of the vine. The initiative came from JNF official Joseph Weitz, famous for a walk he took through the desert wilderness of pre-State Israel in 1935. At one point he stuck his cane in the barren ground and declared “Here will be a forest!” Today that site is the largest planted forest in Israel: Yatir.
Adurayim was dammed up in 1963, and worked well for a while. Indeed, the whole project was in effect until 1970, when it became clear that although the “reservoirs” fed plenty of orchards and vineyards, over time the dams filled with erosive materials and the pools became shallow and useless. But since nobody has had either the money or the inclination to unplug the dam, the public gets to enjoy the result.
Part of the attraction here each winter is a brilliant field of anemones. In Latin, anemone means “daughter of the wind,” a name bestowed on this superb flower because it blooms despite harsh winter weather. While anemones further north bloom in purple and even white, here all the anemones are a heart-colored red. So impressive are the anemones that at one time farmers fed their chickens anemone leaves, in the belief that this would increase the number of eggs they laid.
The ride to and from Amazia Forest is one of the loveliest in Israel. Its bright green open spaces, flowering almond trees, tall cypress trees, twinkling fields and lush hills are absolutely magnificent. Livshutz attributes part of this beauty to the fact that the region has been marked a biosphere reserve – an area where people live in harmony with nature.
Every patch of land is meticulously marked out for a specific purpose and area residents (or developers) can’t build on portions allotted to tourism, crops or as a nature reserve. So natural is the scenery, in fact, that you should keep your eyes open: we spotted a fox that was so comfortable here, he just sat on a hill and looked at us.
For more information and detailed directions to the pools call the JNF-KKL hot line: 1-800-350-550. Or contact us at email@example.com
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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