Friday, October 22, 2021

My brother the birder

For Birdability Week, organised by Birdability, I want to share here the inspiring story of my brother Gidon. 

My brother Gidon is three and a half years older than me. He started birding just before I did - we were both under 10. Thanks to his infectious enthusiasm about wildlife and birding, my childhood growing up in Jerusalem was all outdoors. We trained as birders and ringers together, and spent long periods together in the field. My brother was always up there for me, leading the way, pushing boundaries. He co-founded the wonderful Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory, with Amir Balaban, back in 1994. He served as head of the Israel Ringing Center for many years. Here is Gidon, in the early 1990s, ringing an Eagle Owl near Jerusalem.


Here he is in eastern Turkey, in June 2013. We climbed up Mt. Ararat searching for Caspian Snowcock.




Thanks Amir for the snap

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In 2015 Gidon was diagnosed with a horrible, terminal neurodegenerative disease, ALS. His disease develops in a medium, steady pace. When he was diagnosed he lived in Vancouver, where he worked as a fellow in a leading hospital (his main profession is cardiologist). In May 2016 I went to visit Gidon and his family in Vancouver, with Amir. Back then his disease was demonstrated mainly in weakness in one of his legs. This affected his walking and stability, but all in all his mobility was reasonable.

Here he is during a trip we took to Vancouver Island. He had just spotted our first Orca of the trip.


Back then, the idea to embark on a Big Cat quest was born. Though Gidon had travelled the world extensively when he was young and healthy, he failed to connect with several Big Cat species. I remember that in July 1999, when Gidon came to visit me while I was travelling in Pacific Russia, we walked through a forest full of buntings and leaf-warblers. When we reached a stream that crossed our path, we noticed big, wet, paw prints, still wet from crossing the stream. We missed an Amur Tiger by minutes. Therefore, Gidon was keen to see as many Big Cats as long as he could travel. One day I may write a book about our travels (too many adventures to share here). 

By early 2017 Gidon's condition worsened. He was already using a mobility chair (scooter), but could somehow walk short distances using two sticks. In February 2017 we travelled to India. The team included, Gidon, Amir, Eli (Gidon's close friend who's also a medical doctor) and me. We already had to plan the trip according to Gidon's limited mobility. It was a challenge to climb into and out of the safari vehicles. Walking forest trails was out of the picture basically. We planned the trip well, and had breathtaking encounters with Bengal Tigers in Ranthambhore NP.  Kaziranga NP was incredible too.


Here are Gidon and Eli in a tea estate near Kaziranga NP, searching for Blue-naped Pitta.


In November 2017 I visited Israel (before my return from UK to Israel). I met up with Gidon and Amir, and we birded the Negev. It was a special year for rare wheatears and we enjoyed them along the Uvda Valley road. Gidon was unable to walk then, so birding was limited to roadside stuff. Thankfully the wheatears were kind to us, and showed well just by the road.


Red-rumped Wheatear

Basalt Wheatear

Our next trip together was to South Africa, in February 2018. This time it was a family trip, introducing the children to their family roots in Cape Town. Of course, we had planned the trip to connect with Lion and Cheetah. By then, Gidon could barely stand up using sticks. The safari-drive tempo worked better with his mobility challenges. Of course, we planned our trip to South Africa bringing into consideration his disabilities.
An important consideration in planning birding and outdoor activities is Gidon's ability to use optics. For birders without disabilities, the simple actions of lifting binoculars up to the eyes, or tilting the head to look through a telescope, are trivial. For birders with disabilities that affect the use of arms and hands, this is not trivial at all. In South Africa, Gidon still had just enough muscle power in his arms to lift binoculars up. Here he is in Hluhluwe Game Reserve:


Honorary Big Cat

Our next Big Cat assignment took us to the world-famous Pantanal in Brazil, in November 2018. Again, the crew included Gidon, Amir, Eli and me. Our main target was Jaguar. For this, we used boats specially adapted to Gidon's condition, with the help of awesome friends from Panthera. By then Gidon could barely stand up, so getting him into a boat was a big challenge. Despite the challenges, we had wonderful experiences with Jaguar. Of course, the stunning wildlife of the Pantanal includes much more than Jaguar - it was a dream come true to visit there.
Check Gidon's smile seconds after our first Jaguar encounter - worth all the efforts to get him there:




After a few days in Pantanal we headed north to spend another few days birding the Atlantic Forest with Marco Silva. There are few accessible accommodation options in Brazil, which made us adjust our itinerary so we stay at a suitable location. Few forest trails were accessible to Gidon. A visit to Sitio Folha Seca, to admire the hummingbird feeding operation, was both rewarding and suitable for Gidon - birds are extremely close there.

Our final international assignment (to date) was just before COVID-19 pandemic halted world travel. We flew to southern Spain in late January 2020, where with our Flyway Family siblings Inglorious Bustards we tried to connect with Iberian Lynx in Sierra de Andujar. By then, Gidon's condition had deteriorated dramatically. Now seated in a wheelchair (rather than scooter), and more tragically, hardly able to lift up binoculars. Gidon's energy levels and stamina reached a new low. It was a tough trip, made even more difficult by various unexpected events, including Gidon catching pneumonia. Eventually, on our final morning, we had views of an Iberian Lynx at long range. Sadly, Gidon was unable to stabilise his binoculars, and he failed to see the cat. It was an extremely frustrating moment; after all the difficulties of getting Gidon up that mountain, he couldn't see the lynx.



Since then we have been unable to travel outside of Israel. First, because of COVID. Second, because Gidon's condition is now so frail, that the logistics of international travel make it (almost) impossible for him to fly. I write 'almost' because I still hope that in the near future, we will do the impossible and travel somewhere. Sadly, Gidon won't be able to see any more large cat species. Initial plans we had for Puma in Torres del Paine, or Snow Leopard in Tibet, have become irrelevant. Gidon's lungs won't withstand high altitude anymore. Additionally, Gidon needs to be within short driving distance from a modern medical facility, and requires stable, reliable power supply to sustain him. Since our last trip to Spain, I have tried, usually with Amir, to take Gidon to as many places as possible in Israel. We plan our trips according to Gidon's accessibility requirements. Not many high quality birding sites in Israel are fully accessible. Nowadays, Gidon is unable to lift up binoculars or even tilt his head to look through a telescope. So Gidon requires birding sites that have big birds (Agamon Hula for instance). Gidon is a keen ringer; now unable to handle birds himself, his interest and knowledge of ringing hasn't declined. And it's a great opportunity for him to see birds from up close. Thankfully Gidon has the Jerusalem bird Observatory - he visits there multiple times a week, and is still deeply involved in the monitoring and research work carried out there. Together we visited IBRCE  - Eilat Bird Park, that is fully accessible too. The ringing station is, and also the wonderful walking trails and hides are. The team working there, lead by Noam Weiss, always go a long way to help and assist.


We also visited Ashalim Reservoir, a wonderful site with a good lookout but the distances are large. I attempted to connect a lightweight scope, Viking 12-36x 50mm Swallow Compact Telescope, connected to his wheelchair by a complex system of clamps and adapters. It's a good scope, and the system looks good in the photos, but eventually wasn't very useful, mainly because Gidon was unable to tilt his head in the exact angle needed to look through the scope. We tried also to show Gidon birds through my scope, connected to my phone with an adapter. That didn't work well either - sunlight on the screen makes it difficult to use. That was very frustrating at times.


At KM20 flamingo pools north of Eilat - the rough tracks between the saltpans aren't suitable for Gidon's wheelchair

In July 2021 we joined a ringing team working on Mt. Hermon for a wonderful session, enjoying Mt. Hermon's special birds, including this Syrian Serin held by Yael:



I somehow managed to get Gidon look through the scope at Israel's first Three-banded Plover in Ha'Maapil fishponds. It was very challenging to adapt the scope inside the specialised vehicle, in the exact angle for Gidon to look through the scope at the constantly moving plover:



In June 2021, Kan 11 TV channel broadcasted a piece they did on Gidon and his inspiring story. I am also in there... If you want to get to know Gidon better, consider watching this story. Unfortunately for most of the world it's in Hebrew, but I think you can get the main idea. You can watch it on Youtube (I am not sure whether it works outside of Israel), or through their website, from minute 54 onward. 

To conclude, birding with Gidon has changed my concept about birding with disabilities. In the past, when I birded daily, I was totally unaware of accessibility considerations. I never thought about the simple actions of lifting binoculars up, or looking through a scope. I also never faced issues staying in the field for hours. Now, my views have changed. When I am birding with my brother, the careful planning, the slow pace of birding, the accessibility of trails and the distance to birds all become fundamental. The birding community in Israel is small, and there's only a handful of birders with disabilities. I hope that Gidon's story will elevate accessibility for birders with disabilities into the agenda of birding and wildlife experiencing in Israel. Many new birding sites are being planned these days. Almost every city has an infrastructure of urban wildlife sites. Accessibility needs to be a major component of the planning process.

9 comments:

  1. What a heart warming and equally deeply emotional reflection of good times, may both you and your brother make more memories

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  2. I agree. Inspiring and deeply emotional. Best of luck to Gidon with this terrible illness.

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  3. Yoav and Gidon my memories of you both were many years ago. Your Dad has kept you very much in my thoughts since you Gidon was diagnosed and had to return to Israel.Kol Hakvod to you for your perseverance . Also to your Dad who has devoted himself to your long painful fight against such a terrible disease. All our love. Henry and Chippy.

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  4. So sad yet an inspiring picture of the resilience of the human spirit in adversity. And what a "brother's keeper" Yoav has shown himself to be!

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  5. Your commitment to your brother is wonderful to read about. Thank you for sharing such a touching post. I wish Gidon all the best for the future.

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  6. Much much THANKS Yoav for this wonderful and incredible story of birding with your brother and what you guys have gone through and dealt with out in the field.I can relate in many way with a family member of my own.Keep on keepin on Gidon and Yoav!

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  7. This is a deeply moving story, thanks for writing it, it cannot have been easy. And all the best for future chapters.

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  8. Hi Yoav. Good that you have written this and raised these issues, which as you know are so important to me too. It makes such a difference when locations have decent tracks, accessible hides, wide enough boardwalks, no steps etc. And for every keen birder with mobility issues there are thousands of the general public for whom small obstacles become barriers to engage with nature. All the best for your brother. Stu Butchart

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  9. Thank you Yoav for sharing such a deeply moving story and raising awareness on the issue of accessibility for birdwatchers. I wish you and your brother Gidon all the very best. Alban

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