A Jerusalem Haven for Visitors From Afar

Long-abandoned plant nursery turns into one of the best bird observatories in the Jerusalem area.

Emil Salman

One Saturday morning in the spring of 1994, several graduates of a Jerusalem bird watching club returned once again to the abandoned area near the Knesset building, which in the 1970s had served as a plant nursery, which was to eventually become the Wohl Rose Garden. The long-abandoned, overgrown nursery provided a haven for birds of numerous species, and the group had long realized it was one of the best bird watching spots in the Jerusalem area.

But on that morning, the bird watchers cast a net and caught a lesser whitethroat, which had a ring on its leg. It turned out to have been ringed in Sweden. “That was a defining moment,” says Amir Balaban, one of the bird watchers. “A bird makes a journey of thousands of kilometers between east Africa and Sweden and needs this place specifically to complete the journey. That’s not a trivial thing.”

That day, Balaban and another member of the group, Dr. Gideon Perlman, decided to work to preserve the site and set up a station to monitor and study the birds of Jerusalem. They badgered whoever would listen and the same year, under the auspices of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, they set up the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, which is marking its 20th anniversary. The observatory documents the changes in the condition of birds in the city, the disappearance of native species and entry of other species, including invasive ones.

Along with research and educational work, the observatory’s workers and volunteers have made the area a secure shelter for birds and other animals, nestled between the Knesset and the Supreme Court Building. The Jerusalem Bird Observatory is the first urban nature spot in the country, a prototype for the concept of preserving islands of nature in the urban sea.

It’s really no surprise that the five dunams between the Knesset’s perimeter gate and the Sheikh Bader Cemetery turned into a haven for Jerusalem’s birds in the 1970s and 1980s. Those years saw a frenzy of construction in Jerusalem, with new neighborhoods in the east quickly destroying natural areas, and open areas within the city being covered with roads and buildings. The abandoned nursery, meanwhile, had left a great variety of garden flowers and native vegetation overgrowing in the heart of the city. According to Balaban, “it was an urban oasis that created a cascade of birds.”

Indeed, over the past 20 years, 137,000 birds representing 126 different species have been caught and ringed and another hundred species were observed without being caught. Fifteen of the birds captured at the station bore rings from abroad. The foreign rings teach something about the importance of Israel in the birds’ migration route; the rings ranged from Russia in the east to the England in the west, and Sweden in the north to Cyprus.

Database analysis on bird population at the observatory shows that the variety of birds there is dwindling. Most dominant are those bird species that have learned to make the most of the urban environment. Of these the gray crow is most prominent, alongside the house sparrow and the laughing dove and some invasive species, such as the rose-ringed parakeet, commonly found in Jerusalem’s skies in recent years. In 2008, the Indian mynah bird arrived in the city, an invasive species that had already conquered the gardens in Tel Aviv. A welcome increase was recorded in the number of tree owls.

The flip side is that many native species that could not adapt to the growing city are now rarely spotted; some of them were once commonly seen in the Jerusalem skies. Most prominent among these is the lesser kestrel, well known around Jerusalem until the 1980s. Today there remain a small number of pairs nesting in the Musrara neighborhood. Another bird that has nearly disappeared is the European turtle dove. A decline has also been recorded in the Palestine sunbird, a little bird colored dark metallic green, and the hoopoe, Israel’s national bird.

Even the bulbul, one of the country’s most recognizable birds and the symbol of the bird observatory, is worrying the researchers. In the year 2000 nearly 600 bulbuls were captured at the station, while last year there were less than 300. The graphs show that the graceful prinia suffers a great deal every year that there’s a heavy snowfall. As a result of the heavy snowfall in December, they have practically disappeared, and only recently began returning to the city.

The situation in the observatory is infinitely better than in other parts of the city, where a person can walk around the whole day and see only crows, sparrows and pigeons. Over the years the station built an artificial stream and pond on the site for the benefit of the birds, and a bird-watching shelter for the benefit of the people. The nursery’s old barracks were renovated and turned into research labs and a visitor’s center, which is also the country’s first “living building.” On the roof is a layer of soil in which local vegetation is thriving, and the walls were designed to be a haven for reptiles and insects, with no less than 60 nesting boxes of various types installed. Other types of animals have also found shelter at the observatory, the largest ones being a family of porcupines that lives in burrows built especially for them.