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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
article appeared in
ERETZ Magazine 106. To read it,
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