Ringing in the changes
Four years hence and after fastening bands around the legs of 3,000 birds, Avner Rinat of Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv will be awarded the desirable title of holder of an A-level bird-ringing license.
Bird ringing involves catching birds and placing a small, light, metal ring on one leg. Each ring has a unique number engraved on it as well as an address to which it can be sent by a member of the public in the event that the bird is found dead or injured.
Rinat, 19, defines himself as a birdwatcher since first grade. "When I was just a little boy, my father introduced me to the subject of birds and it is a part of my life today. I see birdwatching and the preservation of the environment as a way of life and now I am just starting out on the path."
Rinat will soon begin a year of pre-military service at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and in the meantime, he began this weekend a bird-ringing course given by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) at Lake Hula.
"Bird-ringing is part of the broad complex of birdwatching and even though I already know a lot about ringing, this course is essential for the rest of the path and I have a desire to make progress in the field," he says.
Nine other amateur birdwatchers will also participate in the last three days of the bird-ringing course. The increasing interest in birdwatching meant that the present course was completely full, with two participants from Jerusalem, one from Herzliya and the others from various places in the northern part of the country.
Nira Bashan sometimes has to leave the group and answer her phone. Bashan owns bed-and-breakfast facilities at Moshav Ma'aleh Gamla and she has to turn down people who have only remembered at the last minute to reserve guest rooms for Passover. She comes to the course on the weekend, with the encouragement of her husband, children and grandchildren.
Unlike the youngster Rinat, she does not see this as a way of life but rather as "something for the soul, for my mental health. Birdwatching has been a hobby of mine for many years. I love to listen, to look and to be aware of my environment. This course is another stage in my love of nature and animals." According to Yoav Perlman, a researcher at the SPNI Bird Center and an instructor in the course: "Even though in Israel there has been ringing activity since the end of the 1970s, up until about seven years ago there wasn't any course on ringing. Ringing is an important research tool and it has to be carried out a high professional level. Because we identified large gaps in the level of ringing, it was decided to institutionalize this field that had been wide open and unorganized." In Israel there are about 80 bird-ringers who have undergone training and they ring about 50,000 birds each year. "We need more ringers," says Perlman.
"Ringing activity is expanding, both as a research tool for monitoring birds and as the educational and training activity that occurs along with it. In parallel, there is also increasing exposure to the field of birdwatching and this can easily be seen in forums, Internet sites, professional publications and visits to the bird observatories. People are discovering the interest and the enchantment."
The course at the Hula begins on cloth mats that have been spread out in the heart of nature. A girl of seven-and-a-half from Kfar Yehoshua, a soldier from Ofakim and a bed-and-breakfast owner from Ma'aleh Gamla exemplify the human variety that is swept up into the field.
The first stage in the basic course is spreading the mist net, the fine net in which the birds are caught and taken for examination, weighing and ringing. Every few minutes the explanation is interrupted by winged distractions that pass over the group, drawing in their wake binoculars affixed to eyes and a procedure of identifying the bird.
Nadav Yisraeli, the director of the ringing station at Lake Hula, sees the course as "an expansion of the circle of bird-lovers."
He explains to the novices that "in the course, great precision is required because of our intervention in the birds' lives and the danger that we pose for them. We have to endanger them as little as possible and we have to acquire a high level of skill."
Perlman explains that "the birds we will trap have legs that are thinner than a matchstick and we have to evince maximal sensitivity. If we break a bird's wing we have ruined its migration. This is a problematic course, because in order to learn it is necessary to take risks at the birds' expense, but there isn't any other way, which is why there is very close supervision of the learners. Don't be alarmed if we warn you from time to time - it's like the driving teacher stepping on the brakes."
At the end of the course, the learners will not yet be considered ringers, but apprentices of a sort. The lower age limit for getting a basic ringing license, a C license, is 15 and one must also accumulate 500 ringings. To earn a B license, at least two more years need to elapse and another thousand ringed birds need to be chalked up. To qualify for the most advanced credential, the A license, ringers need to wait another two years and to ring another 2,000 birds. To progress from one stage to the next, recommendations from qualified ringers are required.