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Turkey birding diary
Bill & Doreen Stair, September 15 - October 9, 2000
Whereas, in normal life, we would plan our weekend or weeklong vacations as tightly and as twitchily as possible, cramming as many target species as conceivably possible into the allotted time frame, this trip is different. For one year we will be traveling on a limited budget, which necessitates an entirely different approach. Firstly, we hope to take some time to relax, absorb other cultures, see some sights, and do some normal stuff besides hardcore birding - such as our laundry. Secondly, we just can't afford to jet off to every possible location in hopes of seeing as many species as possible - not that we won't try - so a side trip to New Caledonia in hopes of seeing a Kagu is unlikely. Thirdly, (and in this respect it won't differ that much from our other trips), we're far from expert birders. We can just about cope in our own patches - Central Park and Jamaica Bay - so, out here in the whole wide world, our attempts at identification will probably resemble those of a blindfolded man swinging wildly at a piñata.
As the taksi leaves the airport, we pass a crowd of Jackdaws and our first "Hooded Crows". From our hotel balcony (ours for the first night only) we see a very pale, bleached-out leaf warbler - apparently a Chiffchaff - hopping around in a fig (?) tree, along with House Sparrows, Rock Doves and Crows. Small birds, similar to Mourning Doves, are involved in a one-sided courtship - Laughing Doves, AKA Palm. Unidentified Swifts swoop and chatter loudly in the dusk, and when night falls, fiery gulls fly above, illuminated by the nearby mosque's spotlights.
The mysterious Apodidae prove to be startlingly large Alpine Swifts, swooping and calling in great numbers. From our balcony we can see that the abundant gulls are Yellow-legged. In the park by the Blue Mosque we see our old friend the Nightingale.
Buyuk Camlica, Istanbul
As we walk up the hill from the taksi drop-off, we encounter a familiar looking bunch of weirdoes clasping binoculars and scopes. We have found our people. Almost immediately three raptors circling between two radio masts are ID’d as Honey Buzzards. Soon after, a large, dark Falcon flies by and a Hungarian confirms our query as to it being a Hobby. Next we see a boiling kettle of raptors, which Kari (a Finn living in Istanbul, and an expert birder) informs us are Levant Sparrowhawks – more common hereabouts than Eurasian Sparrowhawks, and also prone to migrate in large flocks. (Later, we also see a couple of regular, old fashioned Eurasian Sparrowhawks). Millions of Alpine Swifts swoop about, and we ID a few Pallid Swifts, but once again we seem to have missed the plain old regular Swifts. Several Eurasian subspecies Barn Swallows add to the fun.
Creeping around in the bushes, we spend some time stalking a Great Tit and follow a little bird acting something like a Phoebe, wagging her little tail off. We decide she is a Red-breasted Flycatcher - actually a member of the Thrush family, although convergent evolution has made her behavior similar to that of the Tyrant Flycatchers. Her eye ring hints at the Thrush connection. Later a flock of 50 – 70 birds directly approaches us, and as they get closer they reveal themselves to be Black Storks. A quite amazing sight. We’ve missed the peak time for White Stork migration, but later we see a magnificent individual making lazy circles quite close by, and much later, another pair.
Hooded Crows zip backwards and forwards all day, and the occasional Magpie pops out. We hear a chatter which I assume to be corvid in origin, but Kari tells us it’s the call of the Sardinian Warbler, and we see a little gray individual dart by shortly after. Every time Doreen takes her boots off to relax, it’s the signal for something new and exciting – we see a lone Long-legged Buzzard go overhead and also a Lanner, although we miss a Short-toed Eagle that gets called. All in all, not a bad day’s birding.
Kari drives us back across the Bosphorus and we negotiate the Sunday afternoon crowds to find a spot on the riverside where we can set up the scope. As promised, a flock of Yelkouan Shearwaters immediately zooms along the center of the river, and then about-faces. We track them in the scope, and see either another couple of flocks or the same one a few more times. Amazing what you can see when you’re in the know – they were commuting as regularly as clockwork.
We check in to a luxury hotel – the only one open – in this off-season Turkish ski resort area. It suggests The Shining 2: Asia Minor, although in this case the manager is very pleasant and even gives us a ten percent discount. After dumping our bags in our room we encounter a surprising amount of passerine activity for mid afternoon. Lots of adult Spotted Flycatchers, and also many juveniles (unless we are missing the plot completely and the more heavily flecked individuals are a different species entirely). We also catch a glimpse of a remarkable black and red bird, and when we later get a good view realize it’s a Black Redstart, Levant subspecies. We may also be seeing female regular Redstarts, but aren’t sure. Also around is a warbler that looks suspiciously like a Willow Warbler, and a bird with a distinctive white supercilium that refuses to resemble any of the illustrations in our fieldguide. Serins abound, some of them with very little yellow, making them blend in with all the other little brown birds that are zipping about.
Very handy to be able to walk out of the door and start birding right away - a rare treat. First off, a Chaffinch in the middle of the road, then the familiar enormous flocks of confusing leaf warblers. The unidentifiable individual from yesterday – variously a Rufous Bushchat and Moustached Warbler in our confused minds – turns out to be a Water Pipit, but only after hours of head scratching. Although the picture in our fieldguide isn’t great, there’s nothing else that the combined fieldmarks could mean, and the habitat and behavior both fit. (Plus, they’re listed as being common around here - but of course we didn’t figure that out until after the ID). Red-fronted Serins are supposed to be a specialty of this place, and we're lucky enough to see a pair, albeit briefly. Good thing it’s a hard bird to get wrong. Other firsts this morning: the sweet faced Twite, and the beret wearing flocks of Siskins (oddly reminiscent of American Goldfinches). In the afternoon we spend hours investigating the flocks of leaf warblers, and, based on pink legs and the sad, two syllable ‘ho-weet’ call, decide we are looking at some Willow Warblers. There are probably Chiffchaffs and Wood Warblers around as well, but we are novices with this difficult family. Later in the afternoon we see flocks of larger birds zooming by, and when they settle down they reveal themselves as Mistle Thrushes. The distinctive white underwing doesn’t hurt the call either. Also around today: Coal & Great Tits, abundant Spotted Flycatchers, Serins, Pallid Swifts, Black Redstarts, Dunnock, Goldfinches, and Pied Wagtails. At one point we hear the tapping of a woodpecker and then see a woodpeckery shape fly away, but as to which species it was we have no idea.
A couple of hours early birding before we check out of our first (and probably last) four star hotel. The same gigantic flocks of leaf warblers are around, as is the lone Chaffinch in the road outside the hotel. We run into a mixed flock of warblers and Coal Tits, which also contains a Kruper’s (or Krueper’s) Nuthatch, a bird we are very happy to see as it qualifies as Turkey’s sole virtual endemic. The mixed flock also contains at least one Firecrest, very reminiscent of the American Kinglets. Seeing him is an oddly reassuring experience. Meanwhile, a couple of Wrens (Winter Wrens to us) rattle from the tops of stunted Christmas trees.
Kuscenneti Milli Park, Manyas Golu
We arrive, walk in, and follow the path to what appear to be the stumps of the former observation tower. One of the park people confirms this suspicion with the words "tower kaput". Not a good start. They have, however, bulldozed a path through the vegetation beside the lake, perhaps with plans to construct a boardwalk one day. We squelch through and arrive at the lakeside, putting to flight a vast flock of gun-shy waterfowl. The angle of the light is a little harsh, and as they gradually come back we can’t see them too well – with or without our lightweight excuse for a scope. Suddenly a massive flock of cormorants shoots out from our right and heads into the center of the lake. There are literally thousands of them, and mixed in with them are hundreds of Great White Pelicans. The flock is so large it is several minutes before it finally peters out. There may or may not have been some Dalmatians mixed in with the Great Whites, but later on eight or so Dalmatian Pelicans fly back and over us, the black wing-tips easy to see. They get close enough that the grayish trailing edge is visible as well. Great and Pygmy Cormorants are both present in large numbers, the pygmies discernible by virtue of their small size and almost all-black late breeding plumage.
Before the massive armada flies out, we see a female Marsh Harrier teetering around, bothering the other birds. It’s our second sighting of this species, and this time we can view it at leisure. We see her several more times as the day progresses. Also on and around the lake: Little Grebes, Mallards, Goldfinches, Grey Herons, Collared Doves, Hooded Crows, and various sun bleached larids, waterfowl and peeps. Once again, a mystery woodpecker puts in an appearance.
Around the picnic tables we meet an incredibly tame Rock Thrush, who flies up and all but shakes hands with us. To us, he looks like a small-scale American Robin. We should have seen this bird in Uludag at a more reasonable altitude, but this one must be passing through on migration. Also around are House Sparrows, Magpies, an immature Woodchat Shrike, Chaffinches, a Blackbird, Spotted Flycatchers, and a confusing Semicollared Flycatcher, who fortunately has enough of his breeding plumage left to reveal: half a collar. Handy.
Returning to the lake in the blazing mad dog and Englishman heat of mid-afternoon, we see eight Greater Flamingos grazing, unconcerned by our presence. They remain phlegmatic as we approach, and we are able to observe this species from closer than ever before.
The town is run by vast flocks of Jackdaws, but tonight as we sit by the sea of Marmara we see a Little Gull among the Yellow-legged & Lesser Black Backs. Also, a surprising flock of Shearwaters (presumably Yelkouan) scything across the waves like batterangs, flipping from black to white. None of the birding literature we have on Turkey mentions their presence here - although neither did anything mention them occurring over the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Kari saved us a trip up north by showing them to us last Sunday.
Buyuk Camlica, Istanbul
A distinct chill in the air, cold winds, and something between rain and drizzle conspire to keep most migrating raptors away – and to drive us back to the hotel after getting quite chilled by the mountain winds. Strange to think that yesterday we were suffering from heatstroke while we watched Flamingoes. Here at Camlica we see a couple of distant and indistinct raptors, and a couple of Hobbies whiz right past our noses before we call it a day.
Balcony of room 15, Otel Turkmen, Istanbul
As peak season fades away, we have been bumped up to a better class of room, this one on the penultimate floor with a balcony overlooking the Sea of Marmara. Despite the disadvantage of looking directly into the early afternoon sun (thankfully there is occasional patchy cloud cover) we are able to witness a spectacular passage of raptors and storks, presumably as they follow the coastline from the west before wheeling around to cross the Bosphorus heading south. Unfortunately there are no real birders to tell us what we’re looking at, but we manage to ID a very close Short-toed (Snake) Eagle and the flock of Black Storks that passes right over us. Hundreds of other raptors fly over - many Lesser-spotted Eagles, and many buzzards, common or otherwise. We also see a large flock of smallish hawks which might possibly be composed of Levant Sparrowhawks. Many more interesting and exotic species must be mixed in, but the combination of bad light and ignorance conceals their identity from us. Still, an amazing sight, more so considering we can enjoy it from our hotel room. (If you try this yourself, make sure you don’t accidentally book into the much posher Hotel Turkoman, also in this neighborhood).
Buyuk Camlica, Istanbul
No rain today, but the cold wind still prevails. In act of extreme optimism (or stupidity) we leave our jackets behind and are forced home early by the chill. However, before that time we witness a most spectacular day's migration - hundreds and hundreds of Common Buzzards and Lesser Spotted Eagles, at times almost filling the sky. Also seen: another flock of Black Storks, a juvenile Peregrine Falcon, a Hobby flying right in front of us, a couple of Booted Eagles, Common Sparrowhawks, and a few Short-toed Eagles. A tremendous volume of raptors to rival a good day in Cape May.
Buyuk Camlica, Istanbul
After yesterday's rain, a clear and cool day for raptor watching. At Camlica, an impromptu team of French and Dutch birders provide much needed assistance to their North American counterparts. At around eleven o'clock the first flock of what will prove to be several hundred Lesser Spotted Eagles appears. A Hobby or two passes by. Occasionally a Sparrowhawk flies past at eye level, affording a close look at its plumage. A couple of Black Storks put in a brief appearance. The odd Short-toed Eagle flies overhead, closer to ground than his Lesser Spotted cousins, allowing more detailed investigation of his plumage - especially when the sun hits at a satisfactory angle. As the day progresses, increasing numbers of Common Buzzards gradually leaven the crowds of Eagles. Pallid Swifts swoop about in the foreground, and Sardinian Warblers still chatter in the undergrowth.
Soguksu Milli Park
We meet Kari at one o'clock and drive off for some intense birding in central Anatolia - without his help we would not be able to access these sites, and even if we did we would have had a hard time identifying the various species. So a big thank you is owed to Kari, without whom the two following days of birding would not have been possible.
The drive is not too eventful, but we do see a Raven as we near our destination. We arrive in Kizilcahamam at around 4:30 and check into a hotel which is conveniently located within the boundaries of the park. Setting out for some late afternoon birding we run into several Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Doreen and I get our best ever looks at this species. We also see several Eurasian Jays, wearing the ill-fitting toupee of the atricapillus subspecies. Standing on a ridge, we get excellent eye-level views of a Kruper's Nuthatch and also a Eurasian Nuthatch, both working the same area. A male Red Crossbill poses brightly for us, and we also see Mistle Thrushes, Coal & Great Tits, Eurasian Blackbirds, and Chaffinches. Pausing at a highway overlook as we drive up the mountain, we see two Black (Cinereous) Vultures gliding by.
Soguksu Milli Park
Up at dawn the next day and back into the park. Kari hears a Sombre Tit amongst the Robins, Chiffchaffs, Rock Buntings and Blue & Great Tits - we finally see an individual perched on tip of a tree, looking like a ringer for our Black-capped Chickadee. Walking a relatively quiet trail we encounter a Goldcrest, the counterpart to our Ruby-crowned Kinglet. From the summit we see some light phase Common Buzzards and more Black Vultures, though we miss the Ring Ouzel that flies by. Also around are Dunnocks, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Mistle Thrushes, Eurasian Nuthatches, Eurasian Jays, and Chaffinches. At one point an adult Sparrowhawk glides by in perfect light.
The gulu has almost dried up, but the surrounding area is incredibly rich in birdlife. On the way here, the highway side is dotted with Common and Long-legged Buzzards. Pulling up on the road, we get to watch an adult Long-legged Buzzard from very close by, and have the chance to closely observe his plumage. When we make the turnoff for Col Gulu, the telephone wires are covered in Falcons - Lesser Kestrels breed here, and we view several of them at our leisure. Mixed in with them are some Red-footed Falcons, all of them posing long enough for us to observe them through the scope. Further in, between the three villages in this loop off the highway, there are Rooks, Crested Larks, Spotted Flycatchers, abundant Northern & Isabelline Wheatears, Corn Buntings, Northern Lapwings, Long-legged Buzzards, Whinchats, a Red-backed Shrike, many Lesser Short-toed Larks, Willow Warblers, Tawny Pipits, and Calandra Larks. Rock 'n' roll - whew.
Hundreds and hundreds of Greater Flamingos - when they fly by or stretch their wings, the flash of red and black is dazzling. On the gulu are many Little & Black-necked (Eared) Grebes, as well as the odd Great Crested. Five Grey Herons loiter like aging spivs, while perfectly elegant Avocets feed in the shallows. Pochards and Common Shelducks feed, and further out are many Ruddy Shelducks. Beautifully comic White-faced Ducks are abundant - they remind us of our Ruddy Ducks, and how sad it is that Ruddies have been introduced into Europe. Garganeys are present, unfortunately not in their breeding plumage. Flocks of Shovelers fly by, as does a Marsh Harrier. In the Wader department, we have Lapwings, Little Stints, Redshanks, Ringed & Kentish (Snowy) Plovers, portly Ruffs, a jazzy looking Snipe, a Eurasian Curlew, and a lone Curlew Sandpiper. Eurasian Coots and Moorhens represent the gallinule contingent. For the larids, we have an immature chlidonias Tern, twittish looking Slender-billed Gulls on the gulu, and dark eyed Armenian Gulls waiting around for something to happen. Sand Martins buzz over the lake and, just before we leave, huge flocks of Calandra Larks fly in, numbering in the several hundreds.
Goksu Delta - Agkol
The roadside supports many Crested Larks and as we stumble around the scrub, we flush two small birds whose feeble, puffin-like flight suggests crakes to our fevered imaginations. As we approach the reed-beds that skirt Agkol lake we run into three rotund Eurasian Purple Gallinules - they are surprisingly large. Also present in the scrub are many (probable) Willow Warblers and a few Rufous Bushchats, cocking their reddish tails while perched on top of reeds. It's nice to finally see this species. There are also many immature Red-backed Shrikes perched in strategic locations, and above, many female and immature Marsh Harriers. We also see what we take to be a Hen (Northern) Harrier.
Access to Agkol itself is difficult, and when we find a providential hide that provides shade as well as a view of the lake, we are thankful. Near the hide we see three more Purple Gallinules (or the same three) who only reluctantly take the air as we approach. Also feeding at this time is a Little Egret, and when we enter the hide a Common Kingfisher perches and hunts directly in front of us. (We see several more of these superb birds as the morning progresses). On the lake are vast rafts of Eurasian Coots, about forty Greater Flamingos, a few Mallards and about eight Marbled Duck (or Marbled Teal if you prefer). The occasional Grey Heron and Great White Egret fly by. On our second approach to the hide we startle a Snipe - what a great looking bird - and from the 'terraces' (rickety observation points) we view some Redshanks. Other sightings today include a small Tern - (Little or chlidonias?) - and a startled Dove, which range would suggest was a Turtle. Tortoises and thousands of tiny Lizards complete the picture.
Goksu Delta - Parediniz
Between Parediniz lake and the mountains is a large flat plain covered in low, scrubby undergrowth. To add to local color, occasional hunters discharge shotguns into the scrub while others pass by on motorbikes carrying bags of unlucky quail, tame Sparrowhawks perched on their wrists.
Arriving at around 7:30, Marsh Harriers are already hunting for breakfast. We also see what we at first assume to be an immature Northern (Hen) Harrier, but after he has flown around directly in front of us for a while we realize he is a Montagu's Harrier - his buffy breast and belly are un-streaked, he has a white cheek patch and no light collar. Part of our confusion arises from the fact that in North America, immature Northern (Hen) Harriers have very rich buff underparts, whereas, according to our European and Indian fieldguides, they are a much paler over here. The difference is that the North American immatures have paler underwings, whereas the Montagu is uniformly buff underneath. Shortly after, it turns into a raptor wonderland - in addition to the abundant Harriers, there are dozens of Hobbies and Sakers (the latter doing a fair amount of hovering), Short-toed Eagles, Common Buzzards, a Honey Buzzard, and a Peregrine (we think).
Overhead, several flocks of Great White Pelicans come in over the mountains and gradually make their way over the lake. A flock of Black Stork also comes in by the same route. A flock of Greater Flamingos feeds on one of the smaller pools. Also around are Northern (Great Grey) Shrikes, Barn Swallows, a Common Sandpiper, Common Ringed Plovers, Redshanks, Pied & Yellow Wagtails, Grey Herons, Tawny Pipits, and a Great Crested Grebe. We have another perfect view of a Common Kingfisher flying by.
Late in the afternoon we hike up the foothills to the partially completed outskirts of town and watch five Hobbies scything over a vacant lot. As we walk downhill, avoiding the wandering chickens and talking to the half wild cats, we see a Sparrowhawk tethered to his perch outside someone's house. We think he'd rather be flying.
Goksu Delta - Agkol
A last couple of hours at Agkol before checking out of our hotel and taking the fifteen hour bus ride back to Istanbul. There seems to be considerably less activity than a couple of days ago, so we head for the hide and sit tight. We watch (the same?) three Purple Gallinules going about their business, occasionally flying up to perch incongruously on top of the reeds. There are also several Snipes feeding it he area, and a pair of Common Kingfishers hunting. They occasionally pose for us, the light glittering brilliantly from their metallic plumage. After a while, as a special treat, two Water Rails creep furtively from the reeds - an adult and a juvenile. Bizarrely, a weasel (or some other kind of ferret-like creature) creeps out with them, before being hurried away by the adult Rail. It must have been a particularly quiet moment. Also around: the same rafts of Coots and flocks of Flamingos, a female Marsh Harrier, Little Egrets, and Grey Herons.
Balcony of room 15, Otel Turkmen, Istanbul
As the sunset call to prayer blasts simultaneously out from dozens of minarets, we are back in our old room, sipping cold beer on the balcony, watching the sun go down. We're keeping an eye on the Yellow-footed Gulls and the remaining Alpine Swifts that fly by when we hear an unfamiliar, wader-like call. Four buildings to our left, at eye level, a Little Owl is staring right at us from someone's roof. We look at him and he looks at us. This goes on for a couple of minutes, and then he's off, vanishing into the twilight.
Buyuk Camlica, Istanbul
From Istanbul's 'old city': ferry from Eminonu to Uskudar - 15 minutes, taksi to Camlica - 10 minutes.
From Istanbul: Ferry from Yenikapi to Yalova - 1 hour, bus from Yalova to Bursa - 45 minutes, taksi (or bus, in season) to Oteller Mevkii (Hotel Area) - 1 hour.
Kuscenneti Milli Park, Manyas Golu
From Istanbul: Ferry from Yenikapi to Bandirma - 2 hours, taksi to Manyas Golu - 15 minutes.
From Bursa: bus to Bandirma - 2 hours. (If you stay overnight in Bandirma, you could bird Manyas Golu in the morning and get the 3:30 ferry back to Istanbul).
Soguksu Milli Park
Adjacent to town of Kizilcahamam
Col Gulu, Kulu Gulu
Col Gulu is about 50 km south of Ankara, Kulu Gulu is about 25 km further south.
Bus from Istanbul to Silifke - 14 hours. Stay at the bird friendly Lades Motel in Tasucu, (11 km west of Silifke), then take taksi or bike it to Goksu delta. Alternatively, fly in to Adana, 100km east of Tasucu.