There are always surprises, especially in the spring,
says Kacal, an Israeli immigrant from Trinidad who has been bird watching since she was 8 years old, and is now the director of the bird observatory, operated by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and located in the middle of Jerusalem, between the Knesset and Gan Sacher park. Every spring about 500 million birds fly over Israel, making their annual migration from the southern hemisphere back to the northern hemisphere. They stop to rest at various places around the country, including in this little 1.5-acre patch of nature, making Israel one of the best places in the world for bird watching. For most birds, this is their first stop in a lush and green area after many nights of flying over the Sahara and Negev deserts, where there is almost nothing for them to eat.
The birds get here absolutely famished and exhausted,
Kacal says. After landing, the birds spend about a week among the trees, flowers and lily-pad filled pond here, eating various plants and animals. Small birds will usually double their body weight before they fly off for the rest of their journey, Kacal explains. On this March morning, about 100 birds were trapped in the observatory’s hard-to-see nets, which catch birds without hurting them. Kacal and other staff members gently pluck the fluttering birds out of the nets, and put them into small cloth bags. They then spent the rest of the morning attaching small metal rings imprinted with contact information for the Jerusalem Bird Observatory to the birds’ legs. These rings help scientists around the world track bird migration patterns. Some of the birds trapped here arrived with rings from landing here during previous migration seasons.
We see a lot of returning birds,
Kacal said. And many birds arrive each day with rings from other bird ringing stations in Europe and Africa. A group of school children watched intently as a staff member put a tiny ring around the leg of a chiffchaff, a small brown bird weighing about 6 grams. “This is usually a bird you never see because it spends most of its time in the bushes, where it looks just like a leaf,” Kacal explains, saying the bird spends it summers in northern Europe and its winters in Africa. After the ring was attached, the bird was released, flying up into the trees. Through the end of May, visitors can come each week day between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. and watch up close as staff put rings on the birds. Sometimes visitors can hold the birds after they receive their rings and release them into the sky, Kacal says.
For us, interacting with the people and teaching them about birds is very important,
Kacal says. She then makes her way over to a small hut with benches where visitors can look out over the pond and watch birds. A kingfisher is hunting for fresh-water crabs, pausing every few minutes to sing out in search of a mate. Visitors can borrow binoculars, and sit here for free, as long as they want. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, visitors can also see butterflies and turtles; and at night there are porcupines, hedgehogs and bats. “Or, of course you can just sit here and pretend you are not in the middle of the city,” Kacal says. “It’s a great place for everyone, and another way to get to know the city and the country.” In addition to the always open bird watching area, and daily bird ringing, the observatory offers special activities during Passover, including hikes during the day and at night, and viewing of films and an art-exhibit in its visitors center.