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Avian Crossroads

Israel’s location between Europe and Africa puts it on the annual migration route of approximately 500 million birds. More than a few of them stop at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory for some rest and relaxation before completing their journey. by Miriam S. Simon


I walk past the construction near the Knesset and when I reach the security guard’s booth, I ask, “Where are the birds?” He tells me to make the second right, just past the Knesset, where there is a sign and a path leading to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, a community urban wildlife site. When I arrive, I suddenly find myself in a green oasis with a small pond and picturesque view of the capital’s red-roofed white buildings that seems out of place in the heart of Israel’s government district.


Amir Balaban, co-director of the observatory along with Gidon Perlman, was one of the original bird ringers (or banders, as they are called in the U.S.) who used to come here on weekends in the early 1990s. He would survey the site and was eventually among the observatory’s founders some 12 years ago.




The yellow vented bulbul is the JBO mascot (Amir Balaban)


During the previous 20-25 years, urban development had caused this wild area to deteriorate. Before the State of Israel was established this was open land outside of the city and some of it was tended by farmers from an Arab village nearby. After 1948, the city developed westward; the Hebrew University constructed a new campus at Givat Ram and several new neighborhoods were built beyond it. As a result, this area was in the center of the city. Sacher Park and the Rose Garden (the observatory’s neighbors) were established to preserve a green area in the city. For a while, the site of the observatory was used as a nursery, which terraced part of the area and grew large trees for both parks. After the nursery stopped operating, the site served as a garbage dump for the parks. When the ringers came, they found an open field of wild plants, Mediterranean scrub, and the remains of the nursery.


This green area in the middle of the city attracts a lot of migrating birds. When birds are attracted to a place, so are bird-watchers. While other bird-watching sites, such as Armon Hanatziv and Malcha, were turned into residential areas, this site survived. “I saw many of my first birds here like the robin, hedge sparrow, and the hawfinch – a finch with a huge bill that can crack a cherry seed in a second,” says Balaban, who developed his passion for bird-watching as a young child.


He leads me to the bird hide – a wooden hut with wide slits for windows that overlook the Nyman Pond. Sitting in a bird hide is the best way to watch for birds without startling them. He interrupts our conversation often to excitedly point out a bird that has flown past or one that landed to dine at one of the bird feeders. Even though we are in the middle of the city, we do not hear car horns, but bird calls.




By the end of the 1990s, Balaban and Perlman had managed to convince people in charge of the plot, including the Jerusalem municipality, the Ministry of Education, and the Israeli Lands Authority (ILA), that children could benefit from a visit to a bird observatory. Balaban feels that “if we had tried to convince them based on only birds, we would have nothing, the hook is the public. If the public wants you, you can win. So we convinced the public it could benefit from have a birding site between the Knesset and the Supreme Court.” The ILA gave them a permit to use the site and Israeli and foreign donors contributed equipment and helped renovate the building.


This year, they leased the site from the government for 45 years. Most land in Israel is owned by the government and leased to individuals or organizations.


“We lease the land and serve as the caretakers, and manage the site in order to preserve the unique natural resources. We create infrastructure for public use, which is an important tool for future nature preservation in Israel. We have to think like entrepreneurs and be active and devise mechanisms to protect these sites,” explains Balaban, adding that they are planning to develop the old nursery warehouse into a visitors’ center, which will make this the first complete urban wildlife center in the Middle East.


A recent development in the observatory is the six-month-old pond, a wetland donated by Danielle and Larry Nyman. Water is important for birds in general and especially for migratory birds. Fish were put in the pond to eat the mosquito larvae. According to Balaban, the Nyman Pond has done wonders; it has convinced birds to stay longer, which enhances the visitors’ experience here. “It’s a Little Hula with the red roofs of Nachlaot in the background. What more can you ask for?” he asks.


Hundreds of thousands of birds use this site on a regular basis. Most are small birds that migrate at night. They look for a dark unpopulated area with vegetation, searching for the quietest and wildest spot.


Balaban and Perlman wanted to protect this site so that the public could watch and enjoy the birds. There are no fences surrounding the center in order to allow both the public and the birds to come and go without difficulty. One end borders Sacher Park and it is hard to tell where the park ends and the observatory begins. As a result, the observatory has been vandalized more than a few times. That, as Balaban says, is part of working in a city and one of the challenges.


International Rings


The main part of the ongoing research at the observatory is ringing. Black mist nets, which are well camouflaged from the birds’ sight, are set up around the observatory. There is always someone going around and removing the birds from the nets. Birds are taken from the net in a cotton bag, which calms them, to the ringing table. First the bird is identified. If it doesn’t already have one, it receives a ring that reads, “Israel” and “Tel Aviv University” on it, along with a serial number. It is weighed and measured, its age is estimated, and all the information is recorded. Then the bird is released. The site is so pleasant that the bird usually stays for a while to refuel and rest before continuing its trip to Africa or, in the spring, to Europe.


Birds arrive in Jerusalem from Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, and western Asia. The center is in contact with a large network of observatories worldwide. If the center catches a bird with a ring from Sweden, it contacts the center in Sweden. “Bird-watchers are more interested in birds than in politics.” Balaban goes on to elaborate, “We have connections with Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian bird centers. Even when we find a bird from a country we have no relations with, we make sure they know we caught it and vice versa. Without the cooperation and understanding between us, the state of birds will only deteriorate.”


Not Just for the Birds


The research center is in the old hut that was here before the observatory’s time. It is a “theater” with the ringing table as the stage. Anyone passing through can stop and take part. The center does not charge entrance fees because the directors think this ought to stay open public land with free access and use. The only charges are for guiding services.


The center invites schoolchildren to ringing sessions. “Bird-watchers are interested in birds, not people,” Balaban say, so they had to adapt to interacting with schoolchildren. The center has trained bird ringers and representatives to interact with the public. Even so, the bird is the center’s first priority. They trap, ring, and release each bird as soon as possible. If a group is late, the researchers will not hold the birds longer because the birds’ welfare is most important.

Balaban says that ringing sessions are a powerful tool because when you hold a bird in your hand in front of a group for the first time, they realize that they have been missing something all their lives, something that has been under their noses and is full of secrets to discover.



People pass through and sit in the bird hide day and night because night is action-packed too. Porcupines come for nighttime feeds. Owls love to bathe and drink at the Nyman Pond. There is a lot of light from the surrounding city, so the nightlife is visible. Just don’t use a flashlight because the animals don’t like light being shined on them.



Volunteer Options


The Jerusalem Bird Observatory offers a wealth of activities for volunteers. There is a ringing course (for a fee) two or three times a year in which participants learn how to put up nets, extract birds, and identify them. There is management work to do such as ground-keeping and maintaining the pond. Another activity is working with the public as a guide or ranger. The center’s website also was built and is maintained by volunteers.


The best thing for potential volunteers to do is to check out the website to see when activities are taking place. Currently, the center has about 50 volunteers; 20 of them are hardcore regulars. The youngest is about eight years old and the oldest is over 70. 

Everyone, volunteer or not, is welcome to stop by at any time to enjoy the birds or take a guided tour. The center operates daily in the spring; during other seasons, activities are less frequent. Ringing sessions and bird-watching tours can be arranged for any type of group. The center also organizes ringing sessions outside of Jerusalem, monitoring different sites such as Ramat Hanadiv and Ein Tzur.




The full article appeared in ERETZ Magazine 106. To read it, subscribe to ERETZ Magazine.


Measuring a little bittern for a ring. (Miriam S. Simon)


The full article appeared in ERETZ Magazine 106. To read it, subscribe to
ERETZ Magazine.





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