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A Sanctuary for Birds and Birders in Jerusalem

January 4, 2021

by: Kate Norman, BFP Staff Writer

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In the heart of the bustling city of Jerusalem, nestled between Israel’s Knesset (Parliament) and the Supreme Court, lies a serene nature sanctuary. The Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO) rests on an acre-and-a-half (0.6 hectares) of lush land that provides a safe haven for some 200 species of birds and other wildlife within the Israeli capital. It’s an unlikely setting, but as the sign says, the observatory is a “community urban wildlife site.”

The tiny nation of Israel holds the unique geographical position of connecting the Western world with the Far East. Coveted by ancient empires throughout the centuries as a hub of many intersecting trading routes, the Jewish state also serves as an important pit stop for numerous migrating birds from Asia, Africa and Europe. 

What’s the difference between birding and bird-watching? Birding is more of an active, while bird-watching is more passive. As an avid birder wrote in the Bangor Daily News: “Bird-watching is a pastime. Birding is a sport, sort of…If you notice birds while traveling, you’re a bird-watcher. If you travel to see birds, you’re a birder.”

The JOB’s patch of green tucked in the center of the cityscape attracts the passing birds, as the green signals to them a safe haven to rest and refresh before continuing their journey. Throughout the year, 200 different species—both local and migrating birds—visit the observatory to feast from the bird feeders, bathe in the man-made pond and rest in the leafy shrubbery and trees.

The JBO is also a haven for other animals, including butterflies, porcupines, hedgehogs, jackals and turtles. Moreover, it serves as a sanctuary for another group: birders, both beginners and seasoned veterans. It is the first urban wildlife center in Israel, JBO director Alen Kacal said, noting how important the sanctuary is not only for the wildlife but for people as well. “People should be able to go to local places and enjoy wildlife,” Kacal explained. Founded in 1994, the bird observatory provides the perfect place for that, as they host events, presentations, tours, hikes and workshops for bird-watching, sketching and photography. The center houses a bird-watching hide where 24 hours a day, people can come to sit, watch the birds and enjoy the serenity. 

Though the pandemic shuttered most of the country during 2020, the JBO never shut down completely, even though they limited the number of people allowed at a time, Kacal noted. While the nation was locked down to prevent the spread of the virus, people developed a thirst for the outdoors and nature, Kacal explained, and the pandemic increased interest in their observatory as a way to connect with other people and enjoy nature and wildlife. “Adaptations for corona have not been good for us. We need to get back outside,” Kacal said, noting that bird-watching is a great way to enjoy nature while social distancing. 

The JBO not only provides a sanctuary for numerous varieties of birds; it also offers a sanctuary for Anglo birders who have made their center of life in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Though they live in the city, JBO provides them with a peaceful environment to continue doing what they love without having to travel far off the beaten path. 

Amid the pandemic, many of the center’s older volunteers found themselves cut off from the sanctuary during lockdown. “They were desperate for the contact and wanted to know what’s going on,” Kacal noted. As a result, she started hosting Zoom meetings once a week to discuss what birds they were seeing as well as to chat and connect. As Kacal and many of the older volunteers were native English speakers, the Anglo virtual bird-watching club was born. 

When they started, Kacal said, there were only 10 people on the WhatsApp group. Months later, there are now more than 70 people involved, and they even started a Facebook page for overflow discussions. The group hosts a mixture of people who are brand new to the world of birds as well as veteran birders. Many people developed an interest in birds during lockdown by taking notice of their feathered neighbors living on their balconies and in their gardens, Kacal noted. 

The JBO also hosts multiple activities for native Israelis and Hebrew-speakers, but Kacal said the English-speaking virtual club offers a haven for those who are new to Israel or even veterans who still want to comfortably communicate with fellow bird-lovers in their native language. 

The bird-watching community in Jerusalem grows each year, Kacal pointed out, which has a myriad of positive side effects. It increases conservation awareness. “The more connected people are,” Kacal said, “the more they want to take care of what they have.” It also creates connections between people as they join a community based around a common interest. 

The Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory is named for the late nature-loving couple whose sons donated US $2 million in their honor that saw the observatory through a hard funding season this year. For the past 26 years and into the foreseeable future, the unlikely location tucked within the heart of the city makes the observatory a safe haven within a concrete jungle for birds and bird lovers from all backgrounds. A visit to the JOB provides respite from the sounds of honking and city noise, while the sounds of chirping birds and trickling water take the forefront.

Photo Credit: bridgesforpeace.com

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