Israel’s bird watchers

In Israel, even the Knesset has a bird observatory. You don’t have to be a political quack to realize that the Knesset is unique among parliaments around the globe. It’s not only the politicians in the Jewish state who make …

In Israel, even the Knesset has a bird observatory.

You don’t have to be a political quack to realize that the Knesset is unique among parliaments around the globe. It’s not only the politicians in the Jewish state who make it so different. It’s the fact that the House is also home to a bird observatory, which is a delight for ornithologists and nature lovers alike.

Late last month, bird lovers flocked to the Knesset for a day of events marking 30 years of organized bird-watching here, kicked off by the inauguration of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory’s new visitors center.

The Knesset has really taken the local birds under its wing. Touchingly politicians across the political spectrum joined in the discussions and festivities, with barely a nod to the natural pecking order and without ruffling feathers.

A former environment reporter, I have been watching the bird-watchers for about 20 of the last 30 years. They are a rare breed.

I once witnessed the unbridled enthusiasm of perhaps the country’s biggest name in the field, Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Yossi Leshem (a former head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel) whose eagle eyes spotted a large, slightly menacing raptor sitting atop the stone monument at Gesher Ad Halom near Ashdod. I was missing the symbolism. It was no ordinary bird perched on the Memorial for Fallen Egyptian Soldiers: It was an Egyptian vulture.

A birds-eye view of Israel

Since Israel is located at a natural crossroads, some 500 million migratory birds of more than 500 species get a bird’s-eye view of the land twice a year. Few countries can boast skies simultaneously filled with buzzards, storks and pelicans; wetlands full of egrets, herons and wildfowl; and hillsides that are home to warblers, wheatears and buntings.

Hence, hundreds of foreign visitors a year go on a very special form of pilgrimage – on a wing and a prayer. From Eilat in the South to Gamla in the North, for these avid bird-watchers Israel is a paradise.

Occasionally, I have had a glimpse of what so excites them. Sitting in a camouflaged safari truck in a field in the Hula Valley surrounded by some 8,000 pairs of courting cranes is a thrill you cannot get anywhere else in the world.

For another only-in-Israel experience, take the Vulture Path to a panoramic lookout above the ancient city of Gamla on the Golan Heights where, in the first century, thousands of Jews plunged off the cliffs rather than fall captive to the Romans. Here, bird-watchers can see impressive griffon vultures in what is, sadly, their last remaining stronghold. Leshem notes that due mainly to secondary poisoning, the population of griffon vultures in the country has dropped from thousands to just 60 pairs.

People with more patience – much more – don’t stick together with the other bird-watchers but take the route of acclaimed nature photographer Yossi Eshbol, among others. Eshbol goes to great lengths to shoot birds. Through a telescopic lens, that is. He tells of spending days, even weeks, in a tiny camouflaged tent waiting for the right moment to click the camera.

Several of Eshbol’s remarkable photos are currently on display at the Knesset in an exhibition named Agriculture and Birds – coexistence or conflict?

Elite IDF troops rappel down to save buzzard

Vultures, pelicans, cormorants and a host of other birds fall prey to farmers who do not think of them as feathered friends. Many magnificent creatures have been the victim of secondary poisoning as they eat the carcasses of cows that have been (illegally) placed as bait for wolves and jackals. Some 50 bird species are on the endangered list and other birds, such as the bearded vulture (the bird which inspired then-Shimon Persky crossing the Negev to change his name to Peres), have died out altogether.

Fortunately, there are still some uplifting experiences. A few months ago when a honey buzzard got trapped on the ninth story of a Tel Aviv high-rise, the wardens of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority did not so much call out the cavalry as summon the IDF’s elite 669 search-and-rescue team. Some of them, by chance, had spent the morning touring the Ramat Poleg nature reserve learning about nature protection. They quickly rose to the occasion, or more to the point, rappelled down to save the poor creature.

It’s not just the Knesset that takes bird protection seriously, it seems.

Indeed, Leshem’s work with the IAF on preventing accidents when flocks of birds can bring down a plane is recognized around the world.

Another project with growing support across borders is the use of barn owls as a biological pesticide, safely ridding fields of rodents. Each nesting pair can prey on more than 2,000 rodents a year and apart from the obvious advantage of allowing organic, nonpolluting farming, another benefit is that rodents don’t develop a resistance to owls, as they do with pesticide.

The program and study, pioneered by Kibbutz Sde Eliahu in the Beit She’an Valley, has spread its wings and can now also be found in cities – including the anything-but-rural Tel Aviv – and is being implemented also in the Palestinian autonomous areas and Jordan, showing, as Leshem likes to note, that “birds know no boundaries.”

Turning ammunition crates into nesting boxes

In a nice, new twist, in cooperation with Israel Military Industries, local farmers are now turning old ammunition crates into cozy nesting boxes for owls.

Nowadays, the project has been upgraded to a 24-hour system, using lesser kestrels to do the daytime shift while the barn owls nap.

One expert in the field is the super-modest Dan Alon. Among the feathers in his cap is being acknowledged several years ago by Time magazine as a “Hero of the Planet” for his work in a joint Israeli-Palestinian project to save the lesser kestrel. Even birds of prey can turn into doves of peace.

Over the years I have watched and admired many birds that have flown. There will always be a special place in my heart for the vulture named after MIA Ron Arad whose release I witnessed at Ramat Hanadiv in the mid-1990s.

And following the closed-circuit monitor observing a colony of Jerusalem’s lesser kestrels a few years ago was like watching an avian telenovella.

I have been captivated by courting cranes and nesting storks in the north and proudly followed plucky spur-winged plovers – which think nothing of dive-bombing bird-watchers who get too close to their young. I participated, like thousands of others, in the democratic nationwide elections to choose a national bird in honor of the country’s 60th anniversary. And although my vote did not go to the winner, the hoopoe – which is now the subject of a new Israel Post stamp – I like finding them bobbing their heads up and down in the local park.

Birding might be a fun hobby, but it’s far from a lark. Sifting through owl vomit and poop (for incontrovertible evidence of their diet and pest control skills) can certainly bring a person down to earth.

You can discover the secret lives of many of the country’s birds via the Web site www.birds.org.il and there’s no limit to what you can find in the skies if you take the time to look.

Liat Collins is the editor of the International Edition of the Jerusalem Post.

Printed with permission from The Jerusalem Post.