Western Turkey: Birds & History Apr 11—25, 2011

Posted by Brad Schram

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Brad Schram

Brad Schram became fascinated with birds as a child in the mountains of California, the start of an enthusiasm that has modified and enriched his life. He has birded on all...

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This was VENT's seventh Birds & History tour in Western Turkey, but the first run in spring. Our tour was superbly co-led by Umit Ozaydin, as it had been the previous six tours, and his knowledgeable commentary on classical history and contemporary Turkish custom, economy, and politics added immeasurably to our experience. We occasionally tested his patience with bird discoveries at inconvenient moments, but his good nature and commitment to our breadth of experience never faltered.

Woodchat Shrike

Woodchat Shrike— Photo: Brad Schram

Traveling Western Turkey in spring revealed the countryside in its brightest dress, delighting all with displays of wildflowers amongst ancient ruins, as well as fields of blooming peach trees near Selcuk. Our weather was best described as "unsettled," resulting in less than optimum birding conditions at a few key venues, but overall we were usually blessed with a break in the weather when most needed. A restaurant atop the mountain in Ulu Dag National Park opened just as we arrived during a heavy snow. The memory of cognac, chocolate, honeyed roast chestnuts, pistachios, and grilled Turkish sausages chased with tea, all done to an eclectic selection of musical favorites, proved an unforgettable experience. Although we did see some of Ulu Dag's specialties, the snow probably cost us a few species.

While conforming in many ways with previous trip lists, our spring tour showed an interesting contrast with fall tours in that the abundance of many species differed markedly. One expects most wintering water birds abundant in fall to be scarce or missing by mid-April—and this proved to be the case. Fall tour lists number Red-backed and Lesser Gray shrikes as abundant due to resident birds' numbers swelling with their fellows from northern and central Europe; we found all shrikes to be few and far between. Conversely, many raptors proved more abundant in spring—and migrant flocks of Spanish Sparrows in the thousands underlined seasonal differences compared with 2008's fall total of four individuals. Outstanding views of Little Crake, a Great Spotted Cuckoo pacing the bus below Hierapolis, and small flocks of Horned Larks in Ulu Dag's snow were all additions to this tour's cumulative trip list.

Western Turkey reminds one visually of California's Central Coast with its brush-covered slopes, coastal inlets, and orchards. Unlike California, however, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ruins are dotted about the countryside. Birding amongst the marble columns of Miletus, Ephesus, Priene, Hierapolis, and more proved a unique experience. The striking Finsch's Wheatear, of restricted distribution, appears atop a fallen marble column dating to the 2nd century BCE at Hierapolis; an Ortolan Bunting sings amongst sarcophagi of the type given here to Marcus Aurelius. Sombre Tits appear in pines above while the group tracks down our first Blue Rock-Thrush at Hellenistic Priene. Overhead, a Short-toed Eagle carries a snake to a hidden nest in the palisade above. A pair of Spur-winged Lapwings occupy a small pond at Miletus containing a 2,000-year-old marble bas-relief celebrating Poseidon. Active Rock Nuthatches appear in virtually all the ancient sites, the bird's personality coupled with its uniqueness making it a group favorite. Birding amongst Western Turkey's ancient ruins is, indeed, unique.

Samsun Dag National Park occupies a peninsula overlooking the blue Aegean, Greece's isle of Samos visible not far offshore. Arriving in early morning light, we seek Sylvia warblers inhabiting the scrub slope below. A stunning male Rueppell's Warbler—soon joined by others—is first to appear, granting all nice scope views. A Cirl Bunting sings atop a nearby pine. First Lesser, then Greater, whitethroats appear—the Lesser Whitethroat becoming the most regularly seen Sylvia warbler of the trip. In short order we are assaulted by the beauty of male Whinchat and Subalpine Warbler immediately down slope, glowing in the fine scope views. On departure for Greater Menderes Delta, with its Greater Flamingos and Slender-billed Gulls, a Eurasian Hoopoe jumps from a roadside ditch nearby. Beautiful Samsun Dag treated us generously.

Istanbul and the Bosphorus combine geography, history, culture, and natural history in a combination perhaps unparalleled on the globe. Our visits to 6th century Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the ancient Roman underground cistern were unique life experiences. Palaces contain mythical sumptuary goods in abundance—but the Bosphorus rivals the jewels with its beauty. Our multiple crossings on bridges, ferries, and a special boat trip gave us close looks at hundreds of Yelkouan (formerly "Levantine") Shearwaters, an Eastern Mediterranean specialty, as they moved to and from the Black Sea. Although spring raptor migration across the Bosphorus is reputed to be less spectacular than fall, a sampling on a vantage point near the Black Sea proved productive. Kettles of White Storks and Common Buzzards appeared overhead; single Eurasian Sparrowhawks dashed through. A "wave day" here must be one of the world's great migration spectacles!

The remarkable combination of classical Mediterranean history and sites, coupled with Turkey's rich history and culture, make a fascinating tour on their own; when done with a birder's interest, the tour becomes incredibly rich. Our 2011 Western Turkey: Birds & History tour confirmed the truth of this observation. Birding in ancient historic venues was wonderfully productive, fun, and endlessly fascinating!