Israel is a magnet for just about everything and everyone. Jews, Muslims, and Christians; seekers and seers, scholars and crazy people. Even cats.
And also birds.
Israel is a major stop on the path birds take as they migrate from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa. It offers the birds food and shelter, and it offers the people who look for them pure beauty, as well as obvious but also obviously true metaphors about soaring, about the invisibility and futility of humanly imposed borders, about risk and danger and the possibility of death, about freedom, and about the relationship between all these things.
Just as birds flock to Israel and then onward from it, people flock there to watch the birds, to gaze at the sky as they work their jaw muscles, from slack with wonder to back up and closed again.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel — whose mandate includes protecting birds, among many other of Israel’s natural wonders — built the Jerusalem Bird Observatory 25 years ago. That non-profit agency, aided as always by the American Friends of the SPNI, is celebrating its quarter-centennial around the world. Its tour will take it to the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, where it will have a program next week. (See box.)
Once you’re in Jerusalem, the observatory is easy to find, Lynda Kraar of Englewood, who works with SPNI, said. “The minute you walk out of the Knesset” — the Israeli parliament, centrally placed in Jerusalem — “you’re right there. It shares a driveway with the Knesset, and the Supreme Court is on its other side.”
The birds find the observatory too.
Leon Sokol of Tenafly is a co-chair of the ASPNI. He’s seen the migration soar overhead; last year, he talked to the Standard about it. “Five hundred million birds fly over Israel,” he said then. “That’s 500,000,000. With eight zeroes.”
Amir Balaban is the co-director of the observatory, and he’ll be at the JCC for the celebration. The observatory, he explained, is a place where metaphors often become real, where they (sorry, can’t help it) take wing.
“The Jerusalem Bird Observatory was established in 1994 as an experimental bird monitoring site, and it quickly evolved into Israel’s first community urban wildlife site,” Mr. Balaban said. “We incorporate research, education, and community work in the center of the capital city,” he continued. “It is a wonderful migratory stopover for birds, and it is also so very easily accessible to people.” It’s great for both birds and people.
It’s similar to the Rambles in Central Park, he added for reference. The Rambles “are rich with birds. The rest of Central Park isn’t very useful for migrant birds, because it is designed for people,” with its manicured lawns and carefully maintained paths and roads. “The Rambles is designed to look natural, in such a way that it is natural.” Birds can “use it to find little worms,” among other avian delicacies, he said.
New Jersey and New York are great places for birds, Mr. Balaban said, and there are lessons to be drawn from that fact. “Because the parks there are leftover habitats, they become magnets for migrants.” But urban spaces can be reconfigured too. He makes videos; “one of the best I made in Manhattan was of the little stream that flows through the Rambles. All the birds come to bathe there. And the other one was a cardinals’ nest in Liberty Tower, where the World Trade Towers were. They found a ledge on the new building.
“That shows that if you can build an urban space correctly, you can bring nature back. You can rewild even the most intensive urban areas.”
There are some parallels between the northeastern coast of the United States and Israel’s Mediterranean shore, Mr. Balaban said, in that they both host vast numbers of migratory birds. The difference is that “here it is basically a woodland habitat, with estuaries and wetlands. Israel is on the edge of the great desert. It’s the birds’ last fueling station.”
The birds find shelter and food in the observatory, and they also find water. “One of the JBO’s most important elements is the wildlife pond. It was created by two of our most important partners, Danielle and Larry Nyman of Englewood.” (Dr. Lawrence Nyman died in 2011.) “They came to visit us years ago, and they just had a little bird hide, that overlooked a little puddle.” That was the best the observatory could do. (A bird hide — or, in American English, a bird blind — is where observers can watch the birds without the birds seeing them.)
“My husband was a bird enthusiast and an environmentalist,” Danielle Nyman (she’s an educational administrator and an Ed.D.) said. “He composted. I still compost. So when we met Amir, we began to support him in his projects in small ways. When we got to know him, and to realize what a spectacular person he is, we began to support the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. We asked him what we could so, and he said the birds need water.
“So we gave him a sum to create a small pond. And Amir and his partner in the observatory, Gidon Perlman — who is an ornithologist, and who also is wonderful — named it after us. It’s the Nyman Pond.
“So now the birds have a place to eat and to hide and to drink and to flap their wings in the water.”
Not only birds benefit from it, she added. “One time when I was out there with Larry, Amir put peanuts on the ground in the front of the hide, for the birds, and a porcupine family came out to eat them.”
Amir’s an extraordinary man, she added. “He is not only a naturalist. He’s an artist. He has drawn pictures of birds in at least two books, and one of them is a children’s book. He is an amazing nature photographer, and he is on Israeli television regularly.”
Mr. Balaban said that before the pond was designed, he and Mr. Perlman knew that they wanted a place where birds could relax and refuel and people could relax and refuel by watching them and if they are lucky learning from them. “So we designed a beautiful pond that looks like a natural habitat,” he said. “And when the birds see the water and the bugs and the aquatic plants, they just come over.
“Right now is the peak of the migration season. We have tens, sometimes hundreds of people coming to see the birds feeding on wild pistachios at the bathing pond.
“The wild pistachios look like little red grapes,” Mr. Balaban added. “They grow in bunches like grapes.” And, he said, it looks even lovelier than it sounds. And it sounds lovely, because so many of the birds are songbirds.
How many? “We are talking about tens of millions of songbirds,” Mr. Balaban said. “More than 60 species of songbirds that regularly fly over Jerusalem. Thousands of them drop into our parks as the sun rises; at night they navigate by the stars and the city lights and the earth’s magnetic field. When they start to descend, they look for the open areas that still exist in Jerusalem.
“Those open areas are starting to diminish very rapidly because of urban development, so our job — that’s SPNI and ASPNI — is to work together with the Israeli government and local governments and agencies and communities in Jerusalem to create urban wildlife sites.
“It’s like McDonald’s,” Mr. Balaban joked. “We are supersizing.” And they’re working with partners, including the municipality of Jerusalem, to do so.
“We developed the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, and now we are celebrating the fourth year in Gazelle Valley Park.” That’s a 250-acre park in Jerusalem, in between the neighborhoods of Katamon and Kiryat HaYovel, operated by SPNI and the city. “We have 46 beautiful gazelles — and that’s the symbol of Israel.” The park is fenced, but inside it both human visitors and the wildlife range free. The gazelles are wild; sometimes visitors are lucky enough to see them, and sometimes they’re not.
“People can borrow binoculars or bird guides or mammal guides, and they can watch the gazelles,” Mr. Balaban said. “It’s the start of mating season now.” There’s a lot to see.
“We have developed an enormous run-off system that connects water and purifies it, and recycles it through the park,” he continued. Recycling is another project the SPNI champions. “We have beautiful wetlands full of beautiful wildflowers in Gazelle Valley Park, and a pond” — full of recycled water — “that’s its focal point.
“So we had this area that had been neglected, and now it’s got a lake and trees.
“That’s a new way to develop a city,” Mr. Balaban added. “Instead of building the city first, you start by creating a park.” Not that Jerusalem’s builders used that model when they first created the city. The city’s far older than the model. But this neighborhood is newer. When the municipality first decided to build there, turning everything into concrete, as urban developers almost always do, “SPNI intervened, both politically and in terms of advertising,” to get the message out, Dr. Nyman said. The city got it. “Instead of more buildings, they put this here. It’s a beautiful urban nature center, with wild gazelles and big ponds and fruit trees.” It’s the way the land looked before builders took over. “It’s a wonderful wildlife refuge,” Dr. Nyman added.
At the Kaplen JCC, the visiting Israeli ornithologists will celebrate the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and the donors who helped create it.
Maggie Kaplen of Tenafly, whose name is on the JCC, was instrumental in getting the program to the center. “I am in love with birds, and with nature in general,” she said. “I think it’s important that nature be recognized in Israel and the United States, and that we all put our efforts into maintaining nature.”
She hasn’t seen the observatory yet, but that will change. SPNI runs tours of its sites and other natural wonders in Israel — Mr. Balaban is also a tour guide — “and I am going there this fall,” Ms. Kaplen said.
Who: The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel
What: Will honor Danielle Nyman and Larry Nyman, z.l., as the celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue in Tenafly
When: On Thursday, September 26, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
How much: It’s free and open to the community, but an RSVP is necessary. Email Lynda.Kraar@gmail.com