Jerusalem haven for migrating birds celebrates 25th anniversary

The Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory offers a welcoming habitat for a wide range of native and migratory species.

Bird 311 (photo credit: Gal Shon)
Bird 311
(photo credit: Gal Shon)
A corner of urban parkland nestled between the Knesset and the Israeli Supreme Court seems an unlikely spot for bird watching, yet this is the location for the Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO), which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
“In the spring, we’ll have a big event to mark the end of the anniversary year and the publication of a book by our staff about the last 25 years and the 300 species of birds that have been seen in the Jerusalem area,” says JBO Director Alen Kacal.
A project of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the JBO is home to between 20 and 40 bird species at any one time, including Palestine sunbirds, spectacled bulbuls and Israel’s national bird, the hoopoe.
Migrating and wintering birds such as wrynecks, collared flycatchers, masked and red-backed shrikes, thrush nightingales, European robins, hawfinches and bramblings also make the JBO their temporary home as they pass through.
The ornithological traffic makes the JBO's Ariel Weisman Ringing Center the perfect place to ring birds, allowing bird centers worldwide to track the individuals and build up a picture of their numbers and movement.
“We ring around 10,000 birds every year,” says Kacal. “That’s only a small portion of the birds that pass through the area – a good number, seeing we are only an acre and a half.” Bird ringing or banding is the attachment of a small tag to the leg or wing of a wild bird to facilitate identification and monitor movement, migration and development.
Kacal, who has been at the center for 18 years, says that some of the global trends in bird life are being borne out by local findings.
“One of the trends reported in the US is the loss of 2-3 million birds a year," she said. "We’re seeing that here, too. For instance, when I started here we had a few nesting pairs of turtledoves — a bird that once was very numerous in the Land of Israel and is mentioned in the Song of Songs — but today, to see one at the JBO is extremely rare and they’re decreasing worldwide. We think in the future there will be no more turtledoves.”
The species is being hit hard by hunting and habitat encroachment, Kacal said. “Turtledoves are suffering intensely, and we’ve been trying to make it illegal in Israel to hunt them."
She added that: “We have seen a gradual decrease in many other species that pass through here. Migratory birds are in trouble.”
But while some species are struggling, others are flourishing. “Some of our local birds are doing well,” says Kacal. “For example, long-eared owls nest all over Jerusalem and we’ve lately seen an increase. Other local garden birds are doing well. It’s the migrants that seem to be suffering more.”
Bird watching is not the only activity on offer at the center. A number of plants and small animals such as snakes, turtles, porcupines, hedgehogs and bats also call the center home.
And visitors can take part in a range of programs on offer throughout the year including night hikes, nature movies, group tours, nature crafts and workshops on photography, sketching and bird watching.
“We also do tree plantings here in honor or in memory of loved ones, or to do carbon offsets to benefit the environment,” says Kacal. A carbon offset, according to Lexico, is an action intended to compensate for the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a result of industrial or other human activity.
Natan Rothstein contributed to this article.