A tour guide in Israel demands certain talents, among them a cracker-jack sense of direction, and superhuman doses of energy and patience. Add to that a knack of walking backwards while talking intelligently about a wide range of topics, like history, nature and culture, and pointing out a variety of not-to-be-missed vistas. And, of course, there is the knowledge of where toilets are located at any given site, coupled with keeping track of the inevitable straggler (there’s one in every group).

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.

So, by the time you’re handed your diploma and are licensed to start guiding groups in earnest, there isn’t much you don’t know about Israel … or so you think.

Because even with this impressive education, it usually takes years of leading all kinds of groups around all kinds of sites for a tour guide to hit upon his or her trademark Hidden Treasure, a magical place virtually unknown to tourists or even to the natives.

A young boy photographs a small bird at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. Credit: Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.

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 beginning in 2000, Israel’s tourism business 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 nearly two decades later. “And I was astounded to come upon this little oasis tucked behind the Knesset.”

Soon, she was regular at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO), a pristine 1.5-acre spot of green between the Knesset and the Supreme Court building. “I came back again and again during that difficult time just to visit the birds and feel the peace of the place.”

And, like the sparrows that eventually return to Capistrano, 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.

Indeed, 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.”

‘Like a gas station and a cafe’

Naturally, the 700 million birds representing 200 species that pass over Israel—many of which stop at this welcoming oasis in the city—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 bird-watchers from around the globe, hoping for a glimpse of such rare species as the olive tree warbler, the wryneck or the collared flycatcher.

The feathered visitors that do stop by become part of a banding program that serves to keep track of the migrating 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 lightweight souvenir of her first visit to JBO—that it was her eighth annual stop-over. (Notice the rings on hand for storks are quite a bit larger). 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 apparently 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 less-than-hospitable 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 are taking their toll on migrating birds.

Now, two decades after Oppenheimer first stumbled upon the bird sanctuary, there’s a newly renovated visitor center there, serving up information galore on the birds that migrate over Israel, as well as their routes. It also hosts movies and talks. (Buying tip: Check out the gift shop for bird-lovers back home).

Though birds drop by in all seasons, March, April and May are peak months for them to savor the spring crop of flowers and insects, and for human visitors to catch sight of those returning to Europe after the snows melt. Guests can also observe the banding process each morning. And nocturnal visitors at that time of year have a good shot at spotting porcupines, owls and bats—a rare sight in the middle of the city.

Passover week, when countless Israelis and visitors are on the move, sees more visitors to JBO than any other time of year. And, in celebration of its 25th anniversary this year, visitors can expect to find festivities amid the other activities, such as planting bird-friendly trees.

The folks at JBO are able to keep admission free, thanks to support from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and private donors (workshops and group tours do 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 Nachal, packs a picnic dinner and drives in with her three youngsters from their home in 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 a.m to 3 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Banding can be observed from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. daily throughout March, April and May, and periodically the rest of the year. To reach the Jerusalem Bird Center, call 02-653-7374 or visit www.birds.org.il/jbo.