Oct 2010 Journal

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Letter from Israel

Bird-watching in Jerusalem

As a child in London in the 1950s I enjoyed listening to the radio on the days that I managed to persuade my mother I was too ill to go to school. Somewhere between ‘Whistle While you Work’ and ‘Mrs. Dale’s Diary’ was a programme on which someone with a German accent whose name was Ludwig Koch talked about birds. Today I realise that he must have lugged heavy recording equipment around the British countryside in order to send the sound of birdsong through the ether. It did not seem at all incongruous to me at the time, though looking back it seems almost surreal. Thus, even in the urban wilderness of Willesden I developed an interest in nature.

The Jerusalem Bird Observatory is situated in the geographical centre of the city, behind the government buildings and the Knesset. Tucked away in a quiet corner, it is adjacent to the Wohl Rose Garden and the Sacher Park, and together they form a large green ‘island’ in the middle of the city. This constitutes a haven for resident birds as well as for the migrating birds proceeding from their winter quarters in Africa to summer homes in Europe (and back in the autumn). These birds alight there to rest, eat and drink, after having flown hundreds of miles across deserts and/or the Mediterranean Sea.

Bird-watching has long been a popular hobby in Israel, and today it is well-established, with observatories all over the country. The one in Jerusalem now boasts a hide from which one can watch birds as they come to the habitat which harbours the insects and berries on which they feed. In addition, there is a room where visitors can watch volunteers ringing the birds which have been caught in nets that morning. Groups of schoolchildren are taught about bird life, entry is free and the observatory is open all day, so that anyone can come and watch birds whenever they please

Our group looked on as warblers which had been caught that morning were extracted from the cotton bags into which they had been placed. They were identified, weighed and measured and their age and fat content estimated. Small metal rings were then placed on one leg before they were set free. Unusual or rare birds are photographed, and all the information is recorded and eventually finds its way onto the observatory’s website. We were able to see several black-caps and lesser white-throats, which are relatively common, as well as a rara avis, a wry-neck, which twisted its head around most energetically, as it imitated a snake – its ruse for deterring predators. Hoopoes, which are indigenous to Israel and were recently proclaimed its national bird, prefer open spaces and can sometimes be spotted on the lawns of the nearby Rose Garden.

Over 200 species of birds visit the Jerusalem Bird Observatory each year, with an average of 700 million birds visiting Israel in the course of their annual migration. Some birds make for the Hula area, where many storks, cranes and herons stop to rest. Local farmers and fishermen are not overjoyed about this as the birds wreak havoc on their harvest and catches, but they have been persuaded (or compensated) to bear these losses because of the importance Israel attaches to sustaining the ecological balance.

All Israel’s bird observatories are in contact with bird-watching centres elsewhere, including in Arab countries. But why go to an observatory? Just outside Jerusalem brightly-coloured colibris hover above the bougainvillea and jasmine hedge beneath my kitchen window. And, while driving along the highway in May, I saw a flock of cranes over a field, and a lone heron, like me, travelling north.


Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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