Winged Victories

They rise before dawn, travel to the far corners of the country in all weather, and stand motionless for hours. Cameras and binoculars poised, they wait with bated breath and rejoice when sighting a rare breed. A day with a bunch of birders.

It is 10 A.M. Avi Bluman, a graphic artist from Ramat Gan, is perched atop a sewage pool. He's been there for hours now, since before dawn; he left home at 4 A.M. Here and now, he declares, he finally feels like he's truly alive.

He holds a camera with a 400-mm. telescopic lens. "There's a Yellow Wagtail here; I'm trying to take a picture of it," he says quietly, pushing up the binoculars that have slid down his nose. "The problem is that only if I lie down in this swamp will I be able to get the picture that I want, and I don't really feel like going in there. I've been here for five hours and I still haven't gotten used to the smell."

From where we're standing in Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, the sea is visible. A flock of seagulls passes in the distance. Bluman disappears among the bushes to get another picture. "For me, this is a break from work. This is how I clear my head," he explains.

He's been a bird-watcher since age eight. "I think that in the end, it's important to understand the bottom line of our craziness," he continues. "I grant you, birders are something of a peculiar group, a bit obsessive perhaps, but there's a quality of life thing here, too. I have so much pressure at work, and deadlines. There's something wonderful about escaping from the intensity of the day-to-day and coming to this quietness. To look out the window and see a bird isn't enough. You have to go out in the field, out into nature. Here the birds bring peace and quiet."

"I'm a little crazy," admits Yael Lehnardt, 16. It's 7 A.M. on a Friday. She left Jerusalem an hour earlier and is now standing in the Jaffa port, a torrential downpour lashing her face. The waves are crashing against the pier in the storm; everything is gray as far as the horizon. The birders have spread windbreakers over the telescopes that were set up earlier along the boardwalk, in anticipation of seeing something.

Lehnardt has come with a group of 30 birders from Jerusalem, who were joined by several more from the center of the country. All are wearing serious rain gear and tall hiking boots. They're well-equipped. "So far we've seen a black seagull, a booby and petrels," says Lehnardt. "On a regular day we'd have to go into the water with a boat in order to see them, but the storm is tossing the birds away from the sea and we're waiting for them here," she explains, raising her binoculars with dripping hands.

For five years, since she was 11, Lehnardt's been "migrating" after birds - anywhere, anytime and in any weather. "There are people who look at us and think we're a little sick in the head. It looks strange; it's a little hard to understand. People wonder: Why get up so early in the morning? To see a bird? But that's what gives us joy - birds."

Meanwhile, the rain gets stronger and the bird-watchers take shelter inside an Armenian church. "During the teachers' strike, I got up every morning before dawn," says Lehnardt. "Just this week I went to observatories in the Hermon. In the Carmel we spent a day ringing birds, and also in Eilat. And in Kibbutz Tzora we also did some amazing ringing. Yesterday, for example, we ringed 209 birds," she relates excitedly, referring to the process by which birds are captured and before being released, have a ring attached to their leg imprinted with a universal serial number and the location where they were captured, for monitoring and research purposes.

"You start by spreading nets, before the birds arrive. And then you wait a long time. In the twilight hours, the sky fills with thousands of birds. Thousands and thousands. We sit and watch. There's one guy who gets so carried away that he shouts, 'These birds are wonders of the world!'" she says, laughing. "During this time, I mostly daydream. We play the sounds of certain songbirds over the speakers of an MP3. The thing is that we don't know where these vast flocks are coming from. My dream is that one day we'll get a report that one of the birds that we ringed was captured in some city in Europe and then we'll be able to reconstruct its route of migration, and know exactly where it was in the summer. Don't you find that interesting?"

Cellular bird-watching

"A lot of people here have come down with 'bird flu,'" as Shai Agmon calls his favorite pastime. Agmon is a researcher at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, one of the largest bird-watching centers in Israel, located in a wood cabin that sits between the Knesset and the Supreme Court building. Sitting beneath stuffed birds mounted on the ceiling, Agmon holds several cloth sacks containing a variety of birds that were captured in the early morning hours.

"The height of bird activity begins at first light," he explains, pulling a tiny songbird out of the sack. He weighs it, checks its gender and writes down the information. He says the JBO's ringing program has been steadily growing from year to year; in 1995, for example, they caught and ringed a total of 2,020 birds. In 2006, that number was up to 46,562. Now he attaches a ring to the bird's leg, waves his hand and releases it. "There goes another one," he cries happily, gazing up at the sky.

According to Agmon, the bird-watching scene has greatly expanded in recent years, for one thing, because of the greater availability of and accessibility to information. "I remember how as a kid I once read in the Teva Va'aretz magazine that, two months before, a swan had been found in one of the reservoirs near my house. When things like that happen, I throw out the newspaper and bang my head against the wall in frustration."

And today?

Agmon: "Today, young birders go on the computer and find birdcalls and learn how to identify them. Today we have a special text-messaging network on which we send messages to one another in real time. There are over 100 bird-watchers, the hard core, who are included on this list, and it's growing all the time. Just this month I added another five from the Jerusalem area.

"We have a list of birds that are classified according to a system of four levels: super-rare, very rare, rare, and not rare, but interesting. You can send a text message on the network only if you've seen or captured a bird that belongs on this list."

Have you ever had the chance to send a message like that?

"Yes. A month ago, here at the JBO, we caught a Gray-chested Thrush. I was agape as I held it in my hands. People at the JBO thought I was kidding. This is a bird that has only been seen once in Israel, in 1996 in Eilat. There was hysteria. At 6 A.M. I removed the thrush from the net and by 6:15, I sent a text message announcing the capture and saying that I'd keep it until 8 A.M. and then let it go. By then, 30 people came to the station. And anyone who was too late kept looking for it the rest of the day in the area. The guards at the Knesset were a bit taken aback to see people in the bushes with binoculars."

Agmon's activity isn't limited to the JBO. Two months ago, for example, he bid his wife and infant daughter farewell for 10 days and flew to Italy to work with an organization that's fighting the illegal hunting of birds. "I'm considered a serious case. This bird-watching is a deep disorder, no doubt about it," he says, adding that he's thankful that his wife understands him.

"A few years ago, a rare species of goose was spotted in the Golan Heights, a red-breasted Branta. At 2 A.M., a friend woke me up and picked me up in Jerusalem and by first light we were at the Golan Heights. The last time this goose was seen here was in 1988, but we didn't see it that day.

"Then I went up to the Golan three more times and searched for this goose. Think about it: A grown man spending three whole days looking for a goose. It's a little weird, huh? I didn't get to see it then, either. But my friend did. Which made it all the more annoying.

"So far, I've seen 406 of the 540 species that have been counted in Israel, because a good bird-watcher needs this on his resume. There's one type of bird-watcher who just sits on a bench near his house and watches birds, and that's fine for him. Then there are those who need more, for whom it's never enough. I'm one of those."

Agmon, by the way, is far from being the most "extreme" member of this group. That title might have to go to Dr. Yossi Leshem, 59, one of the country's preeminent ornithologists and director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration, located in Latrun. At age 40, he decided he had to fly alongside the objects of his affection. "For 272 days, I flew for 6-11 hours a day on a glider, to study the flight paths of flocks of pelicans, storks and Lesser Spotted Eagles. I flew with these flocks wing to wing, on a motorized glider, from the moment they appeared in the North until they left Israel at the Egypt border. That was a time when I was lucky if I had a pair of binoculars."

Leshem, who has trained entire generations of birders, claims to have an emotional bond with birds. When he was 24, he organized 400 volunteers to guard a Golden Eagle nesting site in Nahal Gilo in Jerusalem. "I wanted to guard this one couple, because it was the first time that a Golden Eagle, which nests in the rocks, decided to nest on a pine tree. I loved them. For three years, I kept the guarding shifts going near the nest and in the end the couple had chicks that hatched. The feeling was indescribable."

Competitive pastime

Over 900 bird-watchers got together last week at the 28th annual bird-watching seminar sponsored by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), which was held at Tel Aviv University. Even the organizers were surprised by the turnout; last year, the conference was attended by 600 people. "Next year at Bloomfield stadium!" said someone. A lot of the people at the event knew each other.

Shlomit Lifshitz, 54, from Herzliya, stands out in this mostly male landscape. Among other pursuits, Lifshitz runs a project called "Nurturing wild birds in your yard," through which she teaches kindergarten- and school-age children how to form a connection with birds in the city, by creating an inviting environment for them.

"Bird-watching is a lot more suitable for males, and the fact is that most bird-watchers are men," she explains. "This may be pop psychology, but bird- watching is a kind of sublimation of hunting. Bird-watchers are like hunters; they go out to the field in silence, watch and locate the subject. For the really fanatic bird-watchers, the main goal is to see the rarest things. They have lists. And it's also terribly important to them to run and tell someone else, to boast that they saw something unusual. They'll always spread the news.

"Women who come to my courses come to see birds, to enjoy it - it's something nice to do. They like to install birdhouses in their gardens. But the men look at it differently. They see it as a kind of sport, a competition, and they quickly get all interested in the binoculars and the telescopes with cameras - which are the best, the most expensive. This love of theirs is very competitive," Lifshitz says.

"Bird-watching today is really a high-tech profession," agrees Leshem. "Every bird-watcher is a digital photographer. I know dozens of them who spends thousands of shekels on their equipment - on binoculars, lenses, clothing, books. Bird-watching today is an expensive business, and every self-respecting bird-watcher has a standard camera that costs NIS 4,000, and that's still small change. A minimal digital lens costs $6,000, and there are plenty of people who buy them. But I understand them. It's love, and when you're in love, you'll do just about anything."

"Nowadays, amateurs buy simple field binoculars that cost between NIS 400-800," says Yigal Petael, owner of Cosmos Telescopes in Ramat Gan. "More professional birders buy telescopes that cost from NIS 2,500-5,000. The demand is mostly for apochromatic telescopes that prevent color distortions."

The Tel Aviv seminar begins with some refreshments and the presentation of an award to veteran journalist Motti Kirschenbaum for his contribution to the advancement of bird-watching via the media. The various panels cite the familiar statistics: how Israel has the largest amount of migrating birds, and how Israel's unique geographic location at the intersection of three continents makes it a bottleneck, through which more than 500 million birds pass in the spring and fall.

"This seminar began in the late 1970s, and there were only about 200 of us then," says Dan Alon, director of the SPNI bird-watching center. "By the late 1990s, the number was up to 400 and today I can talk about a hard core of 300 very serious bird-watchers, and this circle is constantly growing.

"I think that there were two events that helped this process: In 2003, when the Hula bird-watching site was opened, people began to be exposed to the whole thing. Just last year, the place had 250,000 visitors - people exposed to a world they didn't know before. And the film 'Winged Migration' that came out in 2002 also helped, I think. Thousands of people in Israel saw it. In the past four years, we've added bird-watching tours to the SPNI hiking trips. It's been incredibly popular. In 2007 alone, we had 80,000 people come on bird-watching trips - some were three-hour trips to Ma'agan Michael, and we also had three-day gatherings that cost NIS 3,000 per couple."

The seminar concludes with a troubling report: As of this month, 37 species of birds are in danger of extinction in Israel, including 16 in severe danger. The latter group includes Bonelli's eagle and the yellow wagtail, according to Alon, who authored the report. "Of the birds that winter in Israel or migrate through it, five species are in danger of world extinction: the Imperial Eagle, the Greater Spotted Eagle, the Sociable Lapwing, the White-head Duck and the Pallid Harrier. Over the years, four species of birds have gone extinct in Israel: the local ostrich, the Negev vulture, the Bearded Vulture and the Brown Fish Owl," he adds. The causes for extinction include electrocution by high-tension wires, poisoning from the substances used to exterminate agricultural pests, agricultural nets/networks and hunting.

Alon sums up the seminar day with a tinge of disappointment: "Though we have significantly expanded the second circle of bird-watchers, and by that I mean birders who aren't professional, but are still devoted, most people really came here today to hear nice lectures. On the panel that dealt with the endangered species, the hall emptied out. People came to see slides, to hear stories. They're less interested in joining the fight for the birds' sake, and that's too bad, because it's important.

"We have a red book that contains the birds that are in danger of extinction. In any respectable country, a book like this would become an official government document. They'd care about a bird that was in danger of extinction and do something about it. We have species that are disappearing and we are unable to do anything. Israel is blessed in having become one of the world's most important bird-watching centers, but birds don't interest the decision-makers. It's a very frustrating story."

Nest reports

One of the most lively arenas in the local bird-watching world is the Tapuz Internet bird-watching forum. "This morning by the Pelim junction, there was a dead Long-eared Owl by the side of the road, fresh from the morning. Before noon, there as a dead Barn Owl that was run over on the coastal road south of Atlit. No rings were found," writes Ro'i Raz.

A Web surfer calling himself "aetos" reports on observations he made at the Dalton reservoir: 70 Rock Sparrows, 50 Common Pochards, 35 Common Mallards, 15 Northern Pintails, one Long-legged Buzzard, one Peregrine Falcon and a thousand kites over the rift valley between the villages of Sajour and Nahaf. "I remind you that this Friday, there will be a refresher course in identifying waterfowl in the Beit She'an Valley," writes someone named Ehud.

The forum, which began running in 2004, has become the center of the local bird-watching scene. The site's director, Avi Koplowitz, who goes by the name "netbird," says he realized that the "cat and dog community wasn't enough and that there was room for a forum devoted specifically to bird-watching aficionados. I found out that the bird-watching community is very well-established, and as soon as I established the forum, it became active," he says, as he roams the paths around the fish pools at Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael with a bunch of students and a group of 30 hikers with a guide from SPNI.

"One event that shook up the forum was the fate of the Black-shouldered Kite," explains Koplowitz, who is studying for his master's degree in biology at the University of Haifa. "The forum followed the story of the kite, which was observed near Kibbutz Gal-On. Photographers posted amazing pictures of it while it was eating prey, and some kind of bond was formed between the bird and the Web surfers. And then one day there comes a report that this rare kite was seen, stuffed, at an academic institution in the south. It caused a tremendous amount of anger on the forum. There was a flood of responses."

The discussions on the forum take place primarily during the birds' migrating seasons, when there is a sharp increase in the number of entries and messages posted on the site.

"The number of messages on the forum is a function of the birds' migration. At the time of the migration, the forum is overflowing - there are thousands of messages a month," says Koplowitz. "In the summer, for example, there is significantly less activity in terms of messages written. In terms of entries, there are thousands a month. A lot of birders enter every day, or even several times a day, to read what's on the forum. They always want to keep up to date, to know who saw what. The topics of the day are always the unusual things - a bird that was observed in the 'wrong' place at the 'wrong' time. Most of the people who visit the site are serious amateur bird-watchers and they know exactly where each bird ought to be and during what time."W