Jerusalem holds a haven for birds

A 5,000-square-meter plot of land in Jerusalem is a haven for our feathered friends from near and far.

Yellow Wagtail bird (photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
Yellow Wagtail bird
(photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
In a competition of combined brainpower between the Knesset’s 120 members and the many tens of thousands of birds that pass through the Jerusalem Bird Observatory only a stone’s throw away, the feathered visitors probably win out. The judges panel should consist of ornithologists and parliamentary reporters.
Migratory birds weighing as little as 14 grams manage to fly thousands of kilometers, some without stopping to rest, for as long as 11 days because one brain hemisphere remains awake while the other is fast asleep. Without getting lost along the way, they leave Europe, go through Israel, and then turn south to Africa in the fall and take the opposite trajectory in the spring. Their compass is not magnetic fields, as was once believed, but apparently sensitivity to smells from their lofty vantage point. They zoom down to eat berries and seeds, as well as insects, that grow at different times on trees and bushes and do their best to fill their stomachs with fuel for their long journeys. Being “bird brained” should be a compliment.
And then there are the MKs, who fly whenever possible on junkets around the world…
THE JBO, a collection of wooden huts overlooking a seemingly untouched grove of trees and a pond with bullrushes, covers 5,000 square meters of prime real estate between the parliament, the Jerusalem Rose Garden and the Supreme Court building. The plot has a strategic location on the bird migration route between Africa and Eurasia along the Great Rift Valley. Every spring and fall, more than half a billion birds migrate through Israel. While two-thirds of 30 species seen in Jerusalem are migratory – going north in the spring to seek food and nest and south in the autumn to keep warm, about 30 of the species are locals who are permanent residents. Altogether, some 500 bird species are in Israel – a tiny country – out of the 10,000 species that exist around the world.
The wheelchair-accessible site – whose small wooden observation post is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week – is one of the few traditional birdwatching areas in the capital that has not been harmed by development. It is also centrally located, making it attractive as an educational and tourist center for young and old. Some 50,000 people visit in an average year.
Officially opened in 1994 by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the observatory serves as the national bird banding center. It was founded and is directed by SPNI naturalist Amir Balaban and amateur ornithologist Dr. Gidon Perlman, whose day job is as an interventional cardiologist at Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem. They and young volunteers set up nets on poles several times a week, on which birds, mostly migratory visitors, get caught and are examined before being set free with a identifying metal band (ring) on one leg.
Each bird is temporarily placed in a cloth bag that is hung from a peg. The volunteers quickly take one out at a time, examining the state and number of feathers and weighing them on a scale (first placing them in a plastic cone sealed for a few seconds with a clothespin). They then blow at the feathers of the bird’s abdomen to determine how much fat they have left after their journey to Jerusalem. Iris Gorin, a blonde pupil from the Pelech Religious Girls High School, expertly and lovingly holds a bird’s head between her index and third finger and the rest supporting its feet.
All the data is placed on a national database that also receives information from the SPNI’s other birding stations around the country, including those in Eilat, the Hula Valley, Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael (between Haifa and Hadera), Hatzeva (in the Arava) and Sde Boker (in the Negev). The data on the migratory birds are also made available to other ornithology sites around the world.
The room where the ringing takes place was named in memory of Ariel Weissman, a nature lover born in 1953 who fell in the Yom Kippur War on the Golan Heights. A Tel Aviv resident who was a member of the religious Bnei Akiva youth movement, Weisman was touchingly commemorated by his family and classmates with a poem on a sign outside the hut.
Bird enthusiasts can sit – quietly – in the “bird hide” and inconspicuously take photos with zoom-lens cameras or just sit on wooden benches and look. As dogs may disturb the birds, it is best to leave them at home or at least put them on a leash. Refrain from smoking, lighting bonfires, making loud music or littering.
Together with the active ringing station, the JBO serves as an ideal tool for conservation studies and research that monitor bird populations. Migration patterns here – the “bottleneck” between Europe and Asia to the northeast and Africa to the southwest are studied throughout the various seasons.
The Gail Rubin Gallery, which was established to encourage nature artists and photographers in Israel, houses exhibitions that focus on different aspects of nature and are free and open to the public whenever the hut is open. There are also scheduled night hikes; nature movies; group tours; nature crafts; tree planting; and photography, sketching and birdwatching workshops for beginners. The activities are open Sundays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or by appointment. It can be reached at (02) 653-7374; 052-386-9488 or by email at [email protected]
PERLMAN GREW up in Jerusalem’s leafy Beit Hakerem neighborhood and always liked birds.
“I was involved in an ornithology club, but I never kept pet birds at home because I preferred that they be in nature,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview at the JBO. Married to a psychologist, he takes their three children aged five to 11 to the Biblical Zoo, but he prefers seeing creatures in the world. When on a cardiology fellowship in Vancouver, he was in touch with various ornithology centers as well.
“There are many more migratory birds that spend time in Jerusalem than those who live here. The visiting birds include many more varieties. We just caught, identified and freed a river warbler, which is very rare in Jerusalem. We see the bird, which is small, brown and streaked, maybe once a year,” he recollected with enthusiasm. The bar-gailed gotwit, which is only medium sized, travels from Sweden to the Ivory Coast – 10,000 kilometers non-stop – in just 11 days.”
Some migratory birds return every spring and fall, but others come just one season a year and some don’t stop by at all.
“The JBO acts as a magnet for many common migrating and wintering birds such as wrynecks, collared flycatchers, masked and red-backed shrikes and thrush nightingales that can be seen here. European robins, hawfinches and bramblings are regular winter visitors. In addition, many resident Israeli birds, including Palestine sunbirds, spectacled bulbuls and our national bird, the hoopoe, spend much time at the JBO,” said Perlman. The endangered lesser kestrels can be seen nesting in springtime in the nearby Musrara neighborhood near Mea Shearim, and many short-toed eagles and little owls can be found in the hills surrounding the city.
Balaban added that he has had a passion for birds and wildlife since he tried to describe warblers in my childhood notebook.
“Words seemed inadequate. How does one describe the sound of a juvenile autumn Ruppell’s warbler? Trying to visually describe birds led to my making a growing number of sketches and gaining confidence with a pencil.” During the late 1970s, he continued, “photography was not an option. The quick field sketch was a pretty good way to observe and learn the birding trade. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I spent most of my artistic education in Jerusalem’s Bezalel’s photography department and in the field working on large and medium format stills and sketching birds. And to date, this is what I do – I use art to promote wildlife and bird conservation in Israel.”
Looking back, Balaban noted, “I have become addicted to observing nature and birds in particular. It’s becoming clear to me the sketching started as a tool of understanding and today has become a way of sharing an experience. When I published my first book, The Golan Sketchbook, most of the work was an accurate description of birds, mammals and plants I encountered on a six-month journey from the Alpine peaks of Mount Hermon to the steamy Jordan River.
Today, my camera and especially my video camera are used to document wildlife and birds with relative ease. The material is edited and loaded with much ease to the Web and is ready for mass consumption on national TV or any conservation issue.”
ANOTHER LONGTIME volunteer ringer at the JBO is Yuval Dax, who makes bird films and works in the SPNI.
“I have been here since it opened,” he said.
Birds, he said, are “relatives of prehistoric dinosaurs called archaeopteryx [meaning “first wing”] that was the transition between non-avian feathered dinosaurs and modern birds.
Holding a tiny bird weighing just 14 grams, he said that birds molt their feathers twice a year, in the spring and fall. “They wear down during flight, so they need new ones. We observe the condition of their feathers carefully.”
Young birds are usually brown so they can hide from predators better.
“They don’t know how to take care of themselves. When they grow older, their plumage is more colorful, as they don’t have to worry so much about being attacked in the trees.”
For the same reason, female birds’ feathers usually remain in dull colors so, as they sit on their eggs in the nest, they are not attacked.
“The male,” explained Dax, “has to attract females, so he is very colorful. She looks for a male who is strong, hasn’t fallen into the water, has healthy-looking feathers and knows how to bring food to his offspring.”
Birds in tropical rain forests have to have bold colors because the trees create shadows, and if they had dull colors, they could not identify their own species.
Asked what the biggest enemy of birds is, Dax said, without hesitation, “Street cats. They are very bad for birds. They eat birds more than they eat mice. Cats should be kept at home.” Other foes are hunters who shoot birds for food or “pleasure.” Many of them break the hunting laws but are not caught by inspectors. There are also some birds of prey, such as kestrels and sparrow hawks who eat smaller birds.
Birds in the Americas – the “New World” – are very different from those in Asia and Africa, Dax said. The early Americans saw birds that reminded them of those in the Old World and gave them names like “American robin,” but in fact, this is not really a robin but a thrush, he pointed out.
“From the birds we examine, we are able to identify problems in the environment very early,” he said. “When birds arrive before schedule, in the early spring, we realize that global warming is raising temperatures and confusing them so they leave Africa before schedule. They have an internal thermometer.”
Some birds don’t leave Africa any more, but remain because they have enough to eat there. Others learned that they can have an advantage over competition by flying north in the spring,” said Dax. “But the environment can be cruel. In the last 40 years, the number of birds in Europe has decreased by 90%” “We do research on birds and health, including bird flu, west Nile virus, Newcastle disease and other conditions involving birds.
Migratory birds are relatively healthy; they only rare contract viruses, which affect mostly poultry and not birds high up in the trees,” concluded Perlman. He is also certain that birds’ songs and their green surroundings contribute to the mental health of humans.