A tour guide in Israel must have certain talents, among them a crackerjack sense of direction and superhuman energy and patience. Add to that a knack for walking backwards while talking intelligently about history, nature and culture. And of course, there is the knowledge of where toilets are located.
But few realize that to hang out a shingle in Israel, a tour guide must complete a two-year master’s-level degree program in Israel’s history, geography and so much more, and pass a grueling four-hour exam.
By the time you’re handed your diploma and are licensed to start guiding groups, there isn’t much you don’t know about Israel … or so you think.
Because even with this impressive education, it takes years for a tour guide to hit upon his or her trademark Hidden Treasure, a magical place virtually unknown to tourists or even natives.
Fortunately, several Israeli tour guides have generously agreed to share their secrets of the trade with JNS readers.
Tour guides like Frances Oppenheimer, a New Zealand native who’s led thousands of visitors through Israel in the last three decades. Like so many of life’s greatest joys, Oppenheimer’s Hidden Treasure was discovered nearly by accident.
During the second intifada in 2000, Israel’s tourism had ground to a near standstill. “There wasn’t much work, but I couldn’t just sit still, so I started hiking around Jerusalem,” she says. “And I was astounded to come upon this little oasis tucked behind the Knesset.”
Soon, she was regular at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO), 1.5 acres of green between the Knesset and the Supreme Court. “I came back again and again during that difficult time just to visit the birds and feel the peace of the place.”
The tourists eventually returned to Israel, and Oppenheimer began to introduce her groups to the beauty and peace she’d found at the observatory. “All kinds of people from all over are charmed by it,” she says.
The sight of a white-throated kingfisher swooping down to snag a fish from the pond provides a welcome respite after the Sunday and Thursday public tours of the Knesset. “It’s such a contrast to take them from the official bustle of Israel’s legislature to immerse them in something that’s straight out of nature right in the Knesset’s backyard,” she says. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to take you somewhere you would never expect to see here,’ and everyone loves it, even people who’ve never noticed a bird in their life.”
The 700 million birds, representing 200 species, that pass over Israel don’t know or care about the latest Knesset vote. And few Homo sapiens realize that little Israel is on one of the biggest bird-migration routes in the world — a fact that attracts birdwatchers from around the globe, hoping for a glimpse of the rare olive tree warbler, wryneck or collared flycatcher.
The feathered visitors who stop by become part of a banding program that serves to keep track of migration patterns, research conducted in partnership with Tel Aviv University.
On the warm Jerusalem winter afternoon when Oppenheimer showed us around, a young man was gently weighing and measuring a blackcap warbler. The staff could see by the dates on her leg band — a souvenir of her first visit — that it was her eighth annual stopover. Watching intently were families in Chassidic garb, young men in ponytails and jeans, schoolchildren with backpacks on bikes — all mesmerized by the sight of the tiny bird comfortable in the young man’s hands.
These feathered friends are exhausted and hungry after flights of more than 1,000 miles, many having crossed the Sahara Desert. “They’re attracted by the greenery, the water and the sound of frogs croaking in the spring,” says JBO director Alena Kacal. “They pass this way on their flight between Europe and Africa in the fall and the reverse in the spring.”
This little warbler represents an endangered world, she adds, as the pressures of loss of habitat, global warming and continued hunting in Africa and Mediterranean countries take their toll on migrating birds.
Now, two decades after Oppenheimer first stumbled upon the sanctuary, there’s a newly renovated visitor center, serving up information on the birds that migrate over Israel as well as their routes. It also hosts movies and talks.
Though birds drop by in all seasons, March, April and May are peak months for human visitors to see those returning to Europe after the snows melt. Guests can observe the banding process each morning. Nocturnal visitors have a good shot at spotting porcupines, owls and bats — a rare sight in the middle of the city.
In celebration of its 25th anniversary, visitors can expect to find festivities amid the other activities, such as planting bird-friendly trees.
Admission is free, thanks to support from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and private donors (workshops and group tours come with a small fee).
“I just like coming to see the birds,” says 6-year-old Ory Nachal with a shy grin. Every few weeks, his mom, Nehora, packs a picnic dinner and drives in with her three youngsters from Gush Etzion. “It’s so peaceful here,” she adds. “In the middle of Jerusalem, you just enter this completely tranquil place.”
“Ambatya! [‘Bath!’]” she calls out, pointing to the blackbird flicking water off its feathers in a lively shower, a sight that delights her kids.
“This is like a gas station and cafe for all the birds that stop by,” says Oppenheimer. “Being here, you see so clearly that nature has its own cycles, an order to the world that’s greater than ours. If this tiny little bird can fly 5,000 kilometers and land here, there’s an entire extraordinary world that we often ignore.”
The Jerusalem Bird Observatory visitor center is open 9 am to 3 pm, Sunday through Thursday. Call 02-653-7374 or visit www.birds.org.il/jbo.