Birds of a feather Jerusalem Bird Ob­ser­va­tory ‘a lit­tle oa­sis tucked be­hind the Knes­set’

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel - By Deb­o­rah Fineblum JNS

A tour guide in Is­rael de­mands cer­tain tal­ents, among them a cracker-jack sense of di­rec­tion, and su­per­hu­man doses of en­ergy and pa­tience. Add to that a knack of walk­ing back­wards while talk­ing in­tel­li­gently about a wide range of top­ics, like his­tory, na­ture and cul­ture, and point­ing out a va­ri­ety of not-to-be-missed vis­tas. And, of course, there is the knowl­edge of where toi­lets are lo­cated at any given site, cou­pled with keep­ing track of the in­evitable strag­gler (there’s one in ev­ery group).

But few re­al­ize that to hang out a shin­gle in Is­rael, a tour guide must com­plete a two-year mas­ter’s-level de­gree pro­gram in Is­rael’s his­tory, geog­ra­phy and so much more, and pass a gru­el­ing four-hour exam.

So, by the time you’re handed your di­ploma and are li­censed to start guid­ing groups in earnest, there isn’t much you don’t know about Is­rael … or so you think.

Be­cause even with this im­pres­sive ed­u­ca­tion, it usu­ally takes years of lead­ing all kinds of groups around all kinds of sites for a tour guide to hit upon his or her trade­mark Hid­den Trea­sure, a mag­i­cal place vir­tu­ally un­known to tourists or even to the na­tives.

For­tu­nately, sev­eral Is­raeli tour guides have gen­er­ously agreed to share their se­crets of the trade.

Tour guides like Frances Oppenheimer, a New Zealand na­tive who’s led thou­sands of vis­i­tors through Is­rael in the last three decades. Like so many of life’s great­est joys, Oppenheimer’s Hid­den Trea­sure was dis­cov­ered nearly by ac­ci­dent.

Dur­ing the sec­ond in­tifada be­gin­ning in 2000, Is­rael’s tourism busi­ness had ground to a near stand­still. “There wasn’t much work, but I couldn’t just sit still, so I started hik­ing A child vis­its the Jerusalem Bird Ob­ser­va­tory, which houses the Is­rael na­tional bird-ring­ing cen­ter. To­gether with the ac­tive ring­ing sta­tion, it serves as a tool for con­ser­va­tion stud­ies and re­search that mon­i­tor bird pop­u­la­tions.

around Jerusalem,” she says nearly two decades later. “And I was as­tounded to come upon this lit­tle oa­sis tucked be­hind the Knes­set.”

Soon, she was reg­u­lar at the Jerusalem Bird Ob­ser­va­tory, a pris­tine 1.5-acre spot of green be­tween the Knes­set and the Supreme Court build­ing. “I came back again and again dur­ing that dif­fi­cult time just to visit the birds and feel the peace of the place.”

And, like the spar­rows that even­tu­ally re­turn to Capis­trano, the tourists even­tu­ally re­turned to Is­rael, and Oppenheimer be­gan to in­tro­duce her groups to the beauty and peace she’d found at the ob­ser­va­tory. “All kinds of peo­ple from all over are charmed by it,” she says.

In­deed, the sight of a white-throated king­fisher swoop­ing down to snag a fish from the pond pro­vides a wel­come respite after the Sun­day and Thurs­day pub­lic tours of the Knes­set. “It’s such a con­trast to take them from the of­fi­cial

bus­tle of Is­rael’s leg­is­la­ture to im­merse them in some­thing that’s straight out of na­ture right in the Knes­set’s back­yard,” she says. “I tell them, ‘I’m go­ing to take you some­where you would never ex­pect to see here,’ and ev­ery­one loves it, even peo­ple who’ve never no­ticed a bird in their life.”

‘Like a gas sta­tion and a cafe’

Nat­u­rally, the 700 mil­lion birds rep­re­sent­ing 200 species that pass over Is­rael — many of which stop at this wel­com­ing oa­sis in the city — don’t know or care about the lat­est Knes­set vote. And few Homo sapiens re­al­ize that lit­tle Is­rael is on one of the big­gest bird-mi­gra­tion routes in the world — a fact that at­tracts bird-watch­ers from around the globe, hop­ing for a glimpse of such rare species as the olive tree war­bler, the wry­neck or the col­lared fly­catcher.

The feath­ered vis­i­tors that do stop by be­come part of a band­ing pro­gram that serves to keep track of the

mi­grat­ing pat­terns, re­search con­ducted in part­ner­ship with Tel Aviv Univer­sity.

On the warm Jerusalem win­ter af­ter­noon when Oppenheimer showed us around, a young man was gen­tly weigh­ing and mea­sur­ing a black­cap war­bler. The staff could see by the dates on her leg band — a light­weight sou­venir of her first visit to JBO — that it was her eighth an­nual stop-over. (No­tice the rings on hand for storks are quite a bit larger). Watch­ing in­tently were fam­i­lies in Chas­sidic garb, young men in pony­tails and jeans, school­child­ren with back­packs on bikes — all mes­mer­ized by the sight of the tiny bird ap­par­ently com­fort­able in the young man’s hands.

These feath­ered friends are ex­hausted and hun­gry after flights of more than 1,000 miles, many hav­ing crossed the less-thanhos­pitable Sa­hara Desert. “They’re at­tracted by the green­ery, the wa­ter and the sound of frogs croak­ing in

the spring,” says JBO di­rec­tor Alena Ka­cal. “They pass this way on their flight be­tween Eu­rope and Africa in the fall and the re­verse in the spring.”

This lit­tle war­bler rep­re­sents an en­dan­gered world, she adds, as the pres­sures of loss of habi­tat, global warm­ing and con­tin­ued hunt­ing in Africa and Mediter­ranean coun­tries are tak­ing their toll on mi­grat­ing birds.

Now, two decades after Oppenheimer first stum­bled upon the bird sanc­tu­ary, there’s a newly ren­o­vated visi­tor cen­ter there, serv­ing up in­for­ma­tion ga­lore on the birds that mi­grate over Is­rael, as well as their routes. It also hosts movies and talks. (Buy­ing tip: Check out the gift shop for bird-lovers back home).

Though birds drop by in all sea­sons, March, April and May are peak months for them to sa­vor the spring crop of flow­ers and in­sects, and for hu­man vis­i­tors to catch sight of those re­turn­ing to Eu­rope after the snows melt. Guests can also ob­serve the band­ing process each morn­ing. And noc­tur­nal vis­i­tors at that time of year have a good shot at spot­ting por­cu­pines, owls and bats — a rare sight in the mid­dle of the city.

Passover week, when count­less Is­raelis and vis­i­tors are on the move, sees more vis­i­tors to JBO than any other time of year. And, in cel­e­bra­tion of its 25th an­niver­sary this year, vis­i­tors can ex­pect to find fes­tiv­i­ties amid the other ac­tiv­i­ties, such as plant­ing bird-friendly trees.

The folks at JBO are able to keep ad­mis­sion free, thanks to sup­port from the So­ci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of Na­ture in Is­rael and pri­vate donors (work­shops and group tours do come with a small fee).

“I just like com­ing to see the birds,” says 6-year-old Ory Nachal with a shy grin. Ev­ery few weeks, his mom, Ne­hora Nachal, packs a pic­nic din­ner and drives in with her three young­sters from their home in Gush Etzion. “It’s so peace­ful here,” she adds. “In the mid­dle of Jerusalem, you just en­ter this com­pletely tran­quil place.”

“Am­batya! [‘Bath!’]” she calls out, point­ing to the black­bird flick­ing wa­ter off its feath­ers in a lively shower, a sight that de­lights her kids.

“This is like a gas sta­tion and cafe for all the birds that stop by,” says Oppenheimer. “Be­ing here, you see so clearly that na­ture has its own cy­cles, an order to the world that’s greater than ours. If this tiny lit­tle bird can fly 5,000 kilo­me­ters and land here, there’s an en­tire ex­tra­or­di­nary world that we of­ten ig­nore.”

The Jerusalem Bird Ob­ser­va­tory visi­tor cen­ter is open 9 a.m to 3 p.m., Sun­day through Thurs­day. Band­ing can be ob­served from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. daily through­out March, April and May, and pe­ri­od­i­cally the rest of the year. To reach the Jerusalem Bird Cen­ter, call 02-653-7374 or visit


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