Adventures from SPNI, Intern Edition 3

By Luke Finkelstein

The first time I went to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO) was also the first time I met the other intern, Adin. It was Adin’s first day, and all I knew of her was her LinkedIn profile picture, which David had shown me so I could recognize her at the train station. I was nervous: would I like her? Would we get along? We met at 6:50 am that day in mid- June, not yet current to the idea that this was, all things considered, quite late (see post two on Kfar Ruppin!).

My nerves slipped away, for Adin and I bonded immediately, exchanging jokes and
smiles like old friends. During the train ride we talked the whole way, and when Barry picked us up in Jerusalem the banter continued. It was a special day: there we met Dr. Yoav Perlman, supporters of SPNI from the U.S., the guides and bird-ringers at the site, and birds upon birds. Adin, Barry, and I shared a delicious hummus meal afterward. Barry drove us back to the station, where Adin and I took the return train like the seasoned experts that we felt we were. It seemed like figuring out even one train ride in a foreign country, no matter how shepherded along you were, boosted the navigational ego!

Fast-forward a few weeks later, and Adin and I were back—this time on our own, no
Barry to drive us to and from, no Yoav to point out every bird along our way. But we took the train without hiccups, navigated the elevator bonanza of the Jerusalem train station with ease (I counted five of them!), and had a peaceful 20-minute walk to the JBO. This was to be day one of two, a back-to-back learning adventure, and we were ready. Our supervisors (Barry, David, and Jay) had organized for us to meet Ofir, an educational guide, and we also got to know Tomer, who was doing his national service here.

How to describe Ofir and Tomer? I feel like by writing about their bright smiles, some of the light fades on the page. And it shouldn’t: their kindness was so bubbly and wonderful that it was like a fountain. They had the energy of people who love their work and love sharing it. Learning from people like that is the easiest thing in the world.

The JBO, Ofir explained to us, functions firstly as a habitat for birds away from the busy city life. “Imagine you’re a bird,” she said, “and you see this place free of lights, a place that was rewilded, a very unique habitat.” While the JBO is a “classic urban nature site,” it is also unique in being so accessible: a few steps away from government buildings, homes, the train station, and Machane Yehuda Market. Despite its ease of access, the area has a comforting, insulating, quiet feel. I heard nothing but our voices and the nature around us.

As an educational guide, Ofir teaches the many and diverse groups that come to the
bird observatory: from kids in elementary school to curious adults; from high school biology students doing field work to the ultra-orthodox. Professional groups, too, come to learn in hopes of replicating this successful project. I guess one could add to the list college students from the U.S! But the point is that people come from all walks of life. In the gift shop a few hours later, Adin and I spotted an adorable little kindergartener who, after falling in love with the place on a school trip, brought his mom here so that they could share the experience together. He held his mom’s hand, dragging her to all his favorite spots with that sweet childish urgency of one who wishes to show his mom everything he loves.

In addition to conservation and education, the JBO is also a bird-ringing site. This
means that the professionals catch birds and put bands on them. It was in this context that I got to release a Common bulbul. And while cradling a bird in my hands, a life at once so delicate and so beautiful, the question of “why” arose from my lips.

If it was just this one station, said Ofir, then putting a band on a bird’s leg would be unnecessarily invasive. But there are bird-ringing stations all over the world. There’s a story of one of the first JBO bird-ringers catching and releasing a bird with a band from Stockholm, Sweden. With a bird in their hands, a professional bird-ringer measures the health and migration route of that individual and species. In this case, we learned that a bird had flown all the way from Sweden to Israel. You can’t get that from binoculars. “And,” said Ofir, “smart people developed ways to make it the least invasive as possible.”

With climate change, the work becomes even more essential. Tomer reminded us that Israel is at the bottleneck of the second most important bird migration route in the world. In this patchwork of bird-ringing stations, we collect data on bird movements, health, and breeding, observing closely how human activity affects those numbers. We can then act from there. Ofir came in with the closer:

“Data is power in environmental action, and this [the JBO] is one of the tools.”

That tool, clearly, is a thoughtful and integrated tool: a haven for birds and people alike, championing awareness and love for the environment. It’s a place where a migratory bird from Sweden, a kindergartener and his mom, and an ultra-orthodox family can find equal joy.

If you would also like to live and breathe these places fully, I encourage you to check out Nature Israel’s upcoming November trip, which you can find here.

Meanwhile, I’m thrilled to be on this adventure, and for you to be joining me!