Flight of fancy

When Alen Kacal was offered the position of manager of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, in she flew.

Alen Kacal has taken Jerusalem's birds under her wing. As manager and environmental director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, Kacal spends her days watching for, tending to and learning about birds. And that suits her just fine, as "Birds are my hobby, my passion, my obsession," she says. Kacal was born in Trinidad into a very small Jewish community. "Many of the ships from Europe stopped in Trinidad on their way to South America," she explains. While most of the Jewish passengers continued on to Argentina and Venezuela, some stayed in Trinidad during the war and then remained thereafter. Kacal went to study in the US, obtaining a degree in wildlife biology from the University of Rhode Island with a concentration in environmental education and birds. Once she graduated, she could no longer stay in the US because she could not obtain a Green Card, so she made aliya in 2001 at the onset of the intifada. She attended ulpan at Kibbutz Yotvata in the Arava, and then moved to Jerusalem. As jobs were very difficult to find at the time, particularly in her field, she worked for two years as a chef at Belinda's. Although she enjoyed the work at the restaurant, she had her heart set on the bird observatory. She volunteered there as often as she could, creating new programs such as an English-language bird-watching course for adults. When she was offered a more permanent position at the observatory, she grabbed the opportunity. As manager of the five-dunam site, located near the Rose Garden of the Knesset, the 42-year-old mother of two does a daily inspection of the grounds, making sure that everything is in working order, that the migrant birds are fed, that no predators such as cats or snakes are lurking about, and that nothing has been damaged. Kacal is also in charge of the educational aspect of the observatory. To that end, one of the observatory's prime tasks is bird ringing. Every day the staff sets out wide nets in which to capture - briefly - any birds flying overhead. Once caught, each bird is deftly fitted with a tiny, lightweight aluminum ring around its leg, certain data are recorded, and the bird is set free again. In fact, visitors are encouraged to get in on the act. "When we catch a bird, people help us release them," says Kacal. "The smile on their faces as they open their hand is worth everything. The fact of just being here is almost as valuable as what they learn." Once the birds have flown the coop, wherever they are netted by researchers anywhere else in the world, those researchers contact Tel Aviv University and let them know where the bird was sighted -and vice versa. Over the years, compilations of such information provide a meaningful picture of nesting and migration patterns in the avian world. They can also provide information to help humans. For example, says Kacal, by studying the migration patterns, we may learn more about global warming. And if, through the exchange of data, researchers can track declining populations of certain birds, they can try to analyze if the prevailing conditions might affect us as well. According to Kacal, a staggering 500 million to 700 million birds migrate over Israel twice a year. In the winter they need a stopover on their long journey south from frosty Europe to warm Africa. As birds do not want to fly over water (nowhere to land and no food to eat) or over desert (too hot, no shade trees and nothing to eat), most of them chart their route via Israel. Since they require places to rest and food to eat on their layover, Israel has established sanctuaries for them in Eilat, the Hula Valley, Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael and Jerusalem. "We're protecting the birds of Europe," says Kacal. "If we're not hospitable to them, they could die on the way to their destination. We are part of a series of countries that receive them a few times a year. It is a service to the world." Birds of a feather really do flock together, confirms Kacal. But not only birds, she notes. Many people come to Israel just to bird-watch. More than 500 species of birds are seen in Israel, about 200 of which are sighted in Jerusalem. The most common, says Kacal, are the bulbul, blackbird, crow, sunbird, palm dove, pigeon, woodpecker, sparrow, and the hoopoe - the national bird of Israel. At the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, there is a circular building called "the bird hide," with wooden benches and an open view from which enthusiasts can watch the birds to their heart's content. Open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, the facility offers free access to anyone any time of day. There are also guided tours, lectures, bird walks, films, workshops, classes for groups in a choice of languages and the Bird Watchers Club for children twice a month - and for those there is a fee. "It is very therapeutic for visitors who come here," says Kacal. Indeed, it is very peaceful to sit amid the trees and the pond and listen to the cheerful chirping of the birds. "There is a condition called nature deficit disorder," she says. "In our urban environment, we are disconnected from nature. That connection is so important for us to stay focused, calm and healthy." Being in such a tranquil setting as the bird observatory can reduce stress and lower blood pressure, she asserts. It can also increase mutual understanding, Kacal believes. People who visit the observatory may be on the Left, on the Right, religious, secular, Jews, Arabs, Christians, children, the elderly - and they all have birds in common, she says. "We leave politics at the door. Our focus is on how we can help the environment. Through small dialogues like that, we can get to know each other better and start to build alliances," she says. "I feel very lucky not only to have a job, but to have a job that I love," says Kacal. "I get to be outside and to see birds all day long. And I get to meet people from all over Israel and around the world. They are people who either know a lot about birds or those who know almost nothing about them, and I get to open their eyes - and that makes me happy."