Many cities offer nighttime walks, but from the start this tour was clearly
going to be something else. The meeting point, for instance, at the Jerusalem
Bird Observatory, was so close to the Knesset that as we searched for lizards
and spiders in cracks along a wall, a guard came to check us out.
it’s doubtful tours in any other capital cities ask if there are kohanim
present, but much of this trip took place in a graveyard, halachicly off limits
to the priestly caste.
As the roughly 90-minute tour progressed, we were
to discover several uniquely Jerusalem phenomena.
You might not be aware,
for example, that Jerusalem has a particularly high concentration of albino
The porcupines were definitely a big hit on our trip. It was
the first cool evening in days and the huge prickly herbivores couldn’t wait for
JBO director Amir Balaban to finish his explanations before ambling over to a
feeding spot near the lake to pick at (and fight over) the food as we watched
from the hidden observation station.
A few years ago, when it became
clear that a large number of porcupines were losing their homes to the
development of the area around the former Foreign Ministry building, the JBO
built a special subterranean den for the evicted rodents, equipped with
infrared, closed-circuit cameras.
Unfortunately the best laid plans of
mice and wildlife observers have a way of going wrong.
accommodation,” as Balaban calls it, did not take into account the added height
needed when the male porcupine (carefully, as the old joke goes) mounts the
female to mate. Or perhaps the Jerusalemite porcupines are naturally more
modest. Ultimately, they dug their own annex, out of the camera’s range, but
whatever goes on there must be successful as two baby porcupines can be seen
real-time on www.jbo.org.il (along with other details of the
A noted wildlife expert, Balaban believes the unusually
high number of albino porcupines in the Holy City is a sign that they are
adapting to their urban environment, becoming more visible on the roads at
During our late August “nocturnal safari” we did not see any
albinos, but one excited teenager in our group did find an all-white quill in
the graveyard. Incidentally, other porcupines live there in a cave dating back
to the Second Temple period.
Not to be confused with the porcupine, we
also came across a small hedgehog. Balaban had enthralled the younger members of
our tour with his explanations of hedgehog defense.
Hedgehogs, whose diet
is based on insects and meat, can kill scorpions and snakes. They lick the
poison and then spread it on the bristles on their backs to deter foes like
dogs. (The poison doesn’t kill either unless it enters their bloodstream but
apparently the dogs don’t like the taste.) The prickly creatures have, however,
more serious predators. And if you ever wondered how a bird of prey could kill
and devour a hedgehog, think “soft underbelly.”
Balaban also explained
the special characteristics that help night birds, such as specialized hearing,
vision and feathers (structured to make the birds’ flight almost
Perched on a tree, a long-eared owl stared back at our small
group. His feathers might have been ruffled by our presence, but he didn’t lose
his appetite. He suddenly flew off, snatched a small bird from a nearby bough,
and gave us a new insight into the phrase “to be carried off in your
Another peculiarity: Whereas most owls feed on rodents and other
small mammals, the Jerusalemites have adapted their diet to the ready supply of
birds, even adjusting their breeding patterns to suit the migration seasons. It
is not unusual for JBO staff and volunteers to discover bird rings among the
regurgitated owl pellets, evidence that the owls have eaten one of the feathered
visitors who had just been carefully weighed, measured and studied.
saw plenty of bats and heard frogs but, disappointingly, we didn’t see any
jackals. Nonetheless, at some points we had to step carefully to avoid their
poop so we knew they were around, possibly watching us looking for
The focus of the tour was the urban environment.
course, that you can keep religion out of anything in Israel.
years, there have been regular mass pilgrimages by members of a hassidic sect to
one of the graves – following the dream of one member – and, like the
porcupines, they are carrying out improvised and unlicensed building at the
site, only less in tune with the environment.
Many of the graves, sadly,
are unmarked. The site was hastily developed during the War of Independence when
the neighborhood was cut off from the main Jewish cemetery on the Mount of
Traipsing among tombstones might not meet everyone’s definition
of a fun evening out but if you like nature, you grab it where you find
And it turns out all you really have to do is look up, down and
around you. Balaban, who is promoting the concept of “urban nature,” notes that
wherever you live, there are animals sharing your space.
If your idea of
nightlife is a meal and a movie, consider including Eretz Bereishit, Moshe
Alpert’s beautiful nature film shot entirely in Israel. If you prefer to curl up
with a good book, Jonathan Rosen’s philosophical The Life of the Skies might
make you look at the world differently.
The early bird catches the worm
and at the JBO the early visitor can catch the bird ringing. For night owls,
however, it’s worth taking a walk on the wild side.