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City Life: Jerusalem: Africa's birds flock to Knesset

ISRAEL'S KNESSET must be the only parliament in the world with a bird sanctuary in its backyard: one and a quarter acres of prime-site wilderness, ablaze this spring with yellow mustard plants, blossoming fruit trees, wild wheat and barley, red, blue and purple flowers of the field.

In spite of the military helicopters clattering to and from a pad beside the Prime Minister's office and the sound of Dobermanns barking and rattling their chains around the Knesset's perimeter fence, thousands of birds build their nests on the rocky Jerusalem hilltop or stop to refuel on their twice-yearly migration between Europe and Africa.

The director of the Jerusalem observatory, Amir Balaban, says they have logged more than 200 species. About 500 million birds cross the Israeli land bridge in each direction every spring and autumn, navigating between the Mediterranean to the west and the Arabian desert to the east. If they have to land, they want somewhere they can find food and shelter.

Through binoculars we spotted a flock of buzzards circling on thermal currents high above Jerusalem. They are among the millions of big birds that bypass the city, preferring to land in the great scar of the Afro- Syrian Rift near the Hula swamp in the north or Eilat in the south. But medium-sized and smaller birds do drop in on the Jerusalem observatory, undaunted by the government buildings encircling it.

Some are natives, such as the tiny, darting Palestine sunbird, with its blue-green, shot-silk plumage, that sips nectar from flowering trees with a fine, curved beak. The lesser kestrel, an endangered species that nests in the red roofs of a 19th-century neighbourhood, swoops across the valley for its daily diet of crickets.

Others, including the haw finch, robin, corncrake (a relative of the quail) and heron, are transitory. The olive tree warbler builds its nest in olive and other woodland trees of the eastern Mediterranean.

A family of long-eared owls has set up home in a pine wood on the edge of the observatory. Every morning, Mr Balaban and his team find evidence of the owls' nocturnal hunting - skeletons and feathers of tiny birds, chewed and spat out.

The three-man staff, aided by volunteers and schoolchildren, catches the birds in filmy nets, register, weigh and ring them before releasing them. The same birds return time and again. "They appear on exactly the same dates," Mr Balaban reports. "Many even use the same tree as the previous year. We often catch the same birds in the same nets. Birds have an excellent memory for a good site." The job of conservation, he says, is to protect not only the birds' nesting habitats, but habitats on their migration routes.

In return for a $50,000 (pounds 31,000) grant, the team co- operates with Palestinians to establish a bird sanctuary at Beit Jallah on a mountain above the Palestinian-ruled town of Bethlehem. As Nader al Khateeb, a Palestinian conservationist, puts it: "Conservation knows no borders."