Every year, at the beginning of spring, migratory swifts flock to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the birds found the ancient site largely devoid of people, giving them free range to put on displays of balletic group flight above the plaza.
Each fall, the birds migrate to Africa, and ahead of spring, end their yearly journey at its northernmost point — Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem colony is likely one of the world’s oldest, said Amir Balaban, head of the urban division at Israel’s Society for the Protection of Nature
“They probably nested here already in the era of King Herod, 2,000 years ago,” Balaban said, according to Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s sister site in Hebrew. “Usually at this time of year, when the worshipers arrive at sunrise, you can hear the worshipers’ voices from below and the calls of the swifts from above. It always gives me goosebumps.”
Human activity can be detrimental to the swifts when the wall complex is kept bright by artificial light around the clock.
The wall is home to some 90 pairs of nesters, the Temple Mount complex has several hundred, and the capital likely has tens of thousands.
“This is one of the most amazing sights in the world of a mix between a heritage sight and bird watching,” Balaban said. “In China they nest in the tiles of ancient temples and here in the slits of the Western Wall and the old structures of the Old City.”
Swifts are monogamous. From the time they reach sexual maturity at 3 years old until their deaths, at around age 20, they remain in pairs.
Pairs of birds that have established their home at the Western Wall have a designated crack in the stones that they use for nesting season.
This year’s unseasonable rains are a boon to the swifts, causing an abundance of vegetation and insects, leading to competition over nesting spaces in the crowded wall, Balaban said.
Swifts spend most of their time in the air when they’re not nesting, he said.
“They sleep during flight while gliding on air currents. A swift is capable of falling asleep in Jerusalem and waking up in Jordan,” Balaban said.