My blogs are a lot less regular than they used to be. I guess I feel as if I have documented many of the local trips and outings that I do, so it needs something a little different to entice me to put pen to paper.
That opportunity arose with a work conference scheduled for Istanbul for a few days. Our conference would take place at the rather lavish Ciragan Kempinski Palace down by the water’s edge of the Bosphorus (the strait that links the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, and is the natural barrier separating Europe from Asia) in one of the busiest sections of the bustling city of Istanbul. Although, that may be an inaccurate statement as it appears that, in a city that holds 18 million people with a road network that seems to be more fitting to the days when the city was called Constantinople, I would imagine that just about every corner of Istanbul is busy and bustling.
Whenever I am sent away for work, my first port of call is to jump onto Google and explore the birding opportunities. If I’m honest I would have to say that I wasn’t blown away by what I came across. Turkey, as a country, has a pretty sizeable list of over 500 species, but, the small area I would have access to initially seemed relatively limited. To make things even less exciting I only had a single free day, after landing in Istanbul, to try and fit in some birding.
Given the short amount of time and my complete inability to speak Turkish, it was crucial to co-opt local knowledge. So, using my local network I managed to get in touch with Turkey’s top birder, Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu (try say that without scrunching up your face), and he put a day’s itinerary together that would give me access to as many varied habitats as possible in order to add a few birds to my list and snap a few pics.
My plans are always a little ambitious but that’s the way it has to be with eking out as many birds as possible given my inevitable constraints. Our Turkish Airlines flight landed at 4:45am, after overnighting from Cape Town, and I had arranged to meet Emin with my rental car at 6am at the Shell Garage nearby the airport.
Without my roaming working and never having set foot in Istanbul before, I would be prepared to suggest that it was a sheer miracle that I managed to find the garage and then find Emin. After a stilted conversation with the rental car clerk and several loops around the parking lot in the pre-dawn darkness, I took the wrong offramp when exiting the airport and ended up on a highway heading in the wrong direction, which required an exit and re-entry to get back to the Shell. My heart was pounding rapidly as I had visions of wandering around the dark streets of Istanbul industria as my birding minutes seeped away. Missing lifers would soon become the least of my problems. I eventually pulled myself together and, using a combination of instinct and sheer luck, I took the right turn and the bright yellow and orange Shell clam suddenly appeared on my right.
It was a relief to see Emin’s face peeking out from the petrol station shop and, within a minute or two, we were headed north towards the Belgrad Forest which would be our first stop of the day. While we drove north (with Emin thankfully at the wheel) I read out my wish list and Emin responded across the full range between “definitely!” to “no chance”. Even ruling out the “no chances” and the “highly unlikelies” there would still be a few good birds to see and I would spend a full day with a local and get to see some of the countryside.
Always high up on my list are the woodpeckers and here I was faced with the prospect of five new species, with many of them available in the Belgrad Forest. We stopped at a small dam, cleft between the steep hillsides of the forest, which consisted mostly of beech trees as well as a few oaks and other trees that were now in full leaf with spring rapidly advancing.
It was a chilly, overcast morning, though, and the birds were playing hard to get. The only birds that were immediately evident were the many Chaffinches that trilled high up in the trees and every single movement amongst the leaves would reveal yet another one. Soon the Great Tits joined the chorus and we stumbled on the nest of a Eurasian Nuthatch, but it was the first woodpecker of the day that made me feel that we were now birding. Emin heard the plaintive, pulsing whistle of a Grey-headed Woodpecker and within a few minutes there were a few of them inspecting the bark of the large trees around us.
It was also good to catch up with a very obliging Grey Wagtail parading on the dam wall from where we were birding. It is a rarity back home in South Africa so it was nice to be able to get a few photos in relaxed conditions.
Emin was a great guy to have made contact with for my day in Istanbul. It appears as if birding has become a lot more popular in Turkey over the last few years and Emin is a passionate, young guy that has embraced ecotourism in Turkey and freelances as a guide within the country as well as further afield. He has a strong presence in the world of Western Palearctic birding and I was in good hands with his sharp eyes and ears and his unrivalled local knowledge.
Emin worked hard for me during the day in order to eke out as many of the birds on my list that he could and his enthusiasm for getting me onto good birds for a few good photos was infectious. I’d had little sleep overnight on the plane and, with Emin preparing for a trip to Morocco and having deadlines for the submission of publications, he had also been burning the candle at both ends and so we had a few stops for some good strong Turkish coffee. Even with the coffee we had a few moments where we both seemed like we’d nod off but, thankfully, the birding picked up in the afternoon to avoid that eventuality.
A good example of Emin’s determination was a long search for a Semi-collared Flycatcher in the beech woodland in Belgrad Forest. Eventually he heard a short little burst of song and within a minute or two we had the female Ficedula flycatcher flitting above our heads. Not the greatest looking bird in the world but it was a lifer for me and, according to Emin, it was our bird of the day.
Belgrad Forest was not wild birding but, over the few hours we were there, we slowly ticked most of the birds we had looked for. One of the highlights for me was a vocal Common Nightingale that was in full song in a tangle of bushes. I felt pretty lucky to get some good views and some reasonable pics in the gloomy interior of the forest.
One of the things I noticed during our day of birding was the prevalence of stray dogs, more or less wherever we went. Emin had his own special way of dealing with them. At one point I was peering into the treetops watching a small feeding flock of European Siskins when I heard the most bizarre roaring.
Given that I have heard lions roar back in the Kruger Park on a number of occasions, I couldn’t ignore the fact that this was pretty similar. I turned my head away from the siskins and looked towards Emin who had his small portable speaker on the ground, right next to two of the stray dogs that had been following us, and the roaring was very perceptibly belting out from his speaker. It turned out that it was actually a recording of a tiger and Emin used it quite liberally during the day whenever we were surrounded by dogs. I have to admit that the dogs looked a little terrified but I think a real live tiger may have had a slightly better result.
Anyway, we left after adding another two woodpeckers and a few other birds and headed east towards the Bosphorus where our next destination was a migration viewpoint that looked eastwards over the stretch of water and into Asia. The Turkish isthmus is a well-known migration point as the narrowing forces migrating birds to converge as they head north into Europe. They come in large numbers from Africa after crossing the Sinai Peninsula with some migrants veering north east into Asia and some routing north west towards Europe, which is the migration route passing over Istanbul. Turkey is an interesting country in that it straddles the line that separates Europe and Aisa. In fact, Istanbul, as a city, also straddles that line. The line is the Bosphorus which runs, more or less, in a north-south direction widening into the Black Sea in the north and the Maramara Sea in the south. There is no real cultural or ethnic difference between the Asian and European components of the population although it was interesting to note that the European portion of Turkey only accounts for 3% of the surface area of the country.
The weather was cool and overcast which did not make for great conditions, despite the relatively good time of year (although May would have seen greater numbers moving through) but we still managed quite a few good species from the viewpoint. There was nothing I hadn’t seen before but it was peaceful standing on the migration viewing platform watching the migrating birds soar past. There were Common Buzzards, Lesser Spotted Eagles, a few Booted Eagles, a Western Osprey and a Black Kite that added to the species count for the day.
Following our raptor watching we headed further north along the coastline towards the Black Sea. The city seemed to disappear behind us as we now searched for birds in a more rural setting with quaint seaside coves and a rocky coastline. The vegetation was sparse and open, reminiscent of the windswept coastlines of Ireland or Scotland. The varied habitat offered a few new species but the highlight was certainly some decent photo opportunities of a Sardinian Warbler, certainly one of the showier Sylvia warblers around.
Our time along the coastline took us into the early afternoon and as we drove around the corners following the road as it meandered along the contours of the hillsides overlooking the Bosphorus I started nodding off after a sleepless night and a pretty long day thus far. I think Emin started to feel the same way. We had one more site to visit on the eastern (Asian) side of the strait and it seemed doubtful either of us would stay awake to see any birds at all. We pulled into a traditional Turkish coffee shop and charged ourselves with a strong Turkish coffee and the sweetest chocolate dessert I can ever remember. The sugar and caffeine would do wonders to invigorate us for the final destination for the day.
Our route took us over the new third bridge over the Bosphorus, which opened only a year ago, and I noted the brand new four lane highway which seemed remarkably traffic free in the mid-afternoon. It was most likely the only time I would describe a road as traffic free during my short visit to Istanbul.
Our destination was a series of fallow fields and swampy ponds alongside a meandering river near the Black Sea coastline just outside the coastal suburb of Riva. I was now in Asia and I hoped for some new birds. The birding was fortunately quite a bit busier, but Emin lamented the extent of development in this area. He recalled a few years back when this small series of wetlands was a haven for waterfowl, herons and rallids, but now the ponds were being steadily reclaimed with soil as evidenced by the numerous graders and bulldozers lazily dotted across the landscape. The most bizarre event was happening upon a wedding photo session alongside the river where a bride and groom posed for photos in a small little boat amongst the reeds.
Despite the degrading habitat we added a lot of birds to our tally and my lifers included great birds like Little Owl, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Spanish Sparrow and the last bird of the day being a stunning Cirl Bunting that performed very well for the camera.
We had one last try for our 6th woodpecker of the day – Syrian Woodpecker. It would become a theme as we failed to find it on this occasion and despite many other searches I made for it in the park nearby our hotel I would return without my Syrian Woodpecker.
We now had the painful task of heading south, back into the city, where I would drop Emin off at a little café in the Old City on the southern part of the Asian side of Istanbul, and then make my way to my hotel that was situated across the first bridge back onto the European side. I was pensive about my return to the steering wheel as I became acutely aware of the traffic nightmare that pervades in Istanbul as Emin jinxed and swerved through the gridlock. We performed a bizarre changeover just outside the café where he would be presenting a talk on his passion for birding. He stood outside the car brushing his teeth and flattening his hair as I linked to his hotspot and downloaded the Googlemap route to the hotel. I bade him farewell and embarked on an ambitious drive through the very unfamiliar streets. He had given me good counsel for my driving methods and I felt good about my chances of making it in one piece but nothing could prepare me for the total standstill I experienced about 1km from the hotel. The lanes were jammed and I sat for an hour going absolutely nowhere. I came close to needing to use the water bottle in my car to relieve myself, but fortunately the traffic cleared and I got there before emergency proceedings were invoked.
It had been an excellent day out and a great way to see a bit of the city. Emin was a gracious host and had delivered many great birds and photographic opportunities.
The rest of my time in the city was spent at our conference in our glitzy hotel down on the water’s edge of the European side, just south of the first bridge.
We did the obligatory touristy things like visiting the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar down on the Horn (the scene of the motorcycle chase in the James Bond movie, Skyfall) and spent the requisite amount of money on genuine Turkish fakes.
The highlight, though, was an evening cruise on a boat, hugging the coastline heading north.
The sights and sounds of the waterfront were so appealing, as was the three course meal served on the boat, but, for me, the best part was steaming through a flock of around 500 Yelkouan Shearwaters. It was a bird I’d most wanted to see on my journey to Istanbul. These birds use the Bosphorus as a link between the Black Sea and Marmara Sea, giving birders an opportunity to see them close by as they whizz along the surface of the water north and south. I’d had views of them through my binoculars from the hotel but it was now a great opportunity to see them up close as we moved through a flock fluttering around the boat. Unfortunately the sun had well set and the pics are not of great quality but it was an experience to be so close to hear the water being churned by the birds as they restlessly flew off and settled on the surface.
My only other birding was around the park behind the hotel. Aside from the tits, crows, magpies and jays, the only new bird of any significance was the Alexandrine Parakeet, an Indian sub-continent bird that has now settled in several European cities, including Istanbul. A half tick, sort of, but nice to look at.
So, our trip came to an end after a short stay and despite my original misgivings about Istanbul as a birding destination I had eked enough out of it to feel as if it was well worth the effort. Our last night was spent at a restaurant overlooking the southern part of the city and it was a fitting way to end what was a memorable few days.