A wing and a prayer

The Jerusalem Bird Observatory, which is free to visit and always open, is one of the country’s oldest urban wildlife centers.

Jerusalem Bird Observatory 521 (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Jerusalem Bird Observatory 521
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Only two minutes’ walk from the hustle and bustle of the Knesset is a whole other world, a green oasis of calm, complete with a pond and a rambling stream. As I watch, a small bird settles on the branch of a tree near the sparkling water.
“That’s a blackcap,” says Amir Balaban, the director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO), a Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) hub in the center of Jerusalem. In June, he continues, the JBO received word that a female blackcap tagged at the Jerusalem facility in March had been killed by a feral cat on the streets of Berlin.
The observatory, which is free to visit and always open, is one of Israel’s oldest urban wildlife centers, Balaban told In Jerusalem during a recent visit.
Its aims, he says, are threefold – to study city wildlife, provide environmental education to schoolchildren and adults and to provide a framework for community management of urban flora and fauna. With a very small professional staff (that provides paid tours on request), the observatory also hires groups of special-needs young adults to perform cleanup and feeding duties and depends upon school-aged and retiree volunteers to maintain the site.
The special-needs young adults – from an organization called Shekel – who maintain the grounds grow particularly close to nature and learn to find importance in their work, says Balaban.
“What we created here is a framework that gives professional training in different aspects of urban wildlife... with their work we are usually self-sufficient in terms of maintenance and taking care of the habitats.
“This is our little haven – what we’ve designed here is an urban retreat,” Balaban says. “We’ve created a meeting point between birds and people.”
The meeting point – a wooden bird hide – looks out on a specially designed stream, and visitors can enjoy the sights and sounds as both migratory and local birds come to drink and bathe. Dangling from a tree, upside-down plastic bottles act as sunbird feeders.
But the grounds didn’t always look this way, Balaban says.
Before the War of Independence, the land, on the outskirts of the village of Sheikh Bader, mostly consisted of grazing grounds and a few orchards. In 1948, according to Balaban, it was transformed into a makeshift cemetery. Following the war, the site became a plant nursery intended to supply flowers and trees to the future Knesset garden, but the nursery was eventually abandoned and quickly grew wild.
“Then we came in and we started bird-watching here,” Balaban says.
In addition to the wild growth, a portion of the area was converted into an organic garbage dump for the city, a stopping point for biodegradable trash on its way to a landfill, he adds.
“This produced even more biomass and created a haven for birds,” which it has remained ever since, Balaban says. “We’re seeing more birds here on an annual basis, meaning that the carrying capacity of the site is growing, meaning that we’re doing something good for the birds.”
“You can see people coming in in the middle of the week, in the morning, and sitting down,” he says, including government workers and MKs, who also “enjoy the tranquility.”
According to Balaban, the site is one of 10 similar installations across the country.
Balaban himself first learned of the site when he was a member of the Young Ornithological Club in the 1970s, and continued to come in to tag birds into his late teens and early 20s. Then one morning he and his colleagues found a bird on the grounds with a tag from Stockholm, Sweden. This was really the “decisive moment” says Balaban, when he realized the international importance of the area.
“We decided we had a responsibility to protect the site for migrating birds. The challenge was how to convince people, the government and the municipality, that it was worthwhile to preserve an acre and a half of ‘capitol hill’ for birds,” he says.
Rather than approach the government directly, Balaban and other SPNI leaders began inviting schoolchildren to partake in the morning tagging process, telling them stories about the birds and harnessing their enthusiasm, which was then channeled to the rest of the city.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to share science, research, education and observation, and as things progressed we developed many tools like this bird hide, which is open to the public and accessible to all,” he says.
While it’s impossible to document the total number of visitors to the site, the number of people paying for guides, both at the JBO and at nearby Gazelle Valley and Bible Hill, has increased significantly in recent years, with tens of thousands now coming annually, according to Balaban.
“The beauty of these sites is they don’t cost much money to preserve – you don’t have to manage them too intensively. But it produces a lot of environmental benefits,” he adds.
In addition to hosting a wide array of birds and other animals such as frogs and a family of porcupines, because the garden is so rich in vegetation, it produces a lot of oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, absorbs water runoff and mitigates urban climate, Balaban explains. Meanwhile, a “living roof” atop a “living building” visitors’ center plays host to 700 types of native Israeli plants that effectively absorb water and insulate the center, and the building itself is designed with all recycled material.
“The idea of a living building is to design a building that not only serves people but also serves the local biodiversity,” Balaban says. “These are rocks collected from building sites, and we are building in such a way that they are very loosely held together so they create a lot of microclimates, and you can see how many insects, wasps, spiders and lizards live on the face of the wall.”
“There are fewer and fewer open spaces, and the JBO is turning into a kind of an urban oasis,” he says. “Around us there are beautiful gardens, but the biomass there is very low because they are very highly maintained.”
While native Israelis do venture over to the preserve, visitors to the JBO are in large part originally from English-speaking countries, says Balaban. They are generally more avid botanists and are taught to have great respect for wildlife in school, he adds.
“They’re really fond of birds and wildlife. They’re educated to respect and admire wildlife and nature,” he says, noting that while Israelis too love nature, their fondness for birds and other fauna is not typically as strong as that of people from, for example, South Africa, England or Australia.
“There are people who come here regularly – some are busy professionals who on Saturdays want peace of mind,” Balaban adds. “They see it as a part of their city life.”
In conjunction with its parent organization SPNI, the JBO is currently promoting a new book called Drawing Inspiration from the Hula Valley, the product of visits from international artists to Israel this winter to observe birds there through SPNI and the Artists for Nature Foundation. One piece from the compilation is on display in the lobby of the JBO visitor’s center.
Because more than half the world’s population now lives in cities, Balaban says, “cities have very strong effect on what the planet will look like in the next few years.”
“The ways cities operate affects biodiversity globally,” he says.
“So we believe that cities should take an active role in protecting wildlife and habitats. This can be done first of all by making sure important habitats in the city are preserved, and second by ensuring more habitats and open spaces are created at the city limits. Places should be designed in such a way that they serve people and wildlife in the same way.”