Saturday, December 28, 2013

Central Turkey and beyond

From Tarsus it was a steady uphill climb to the next town of Gülek, tucked away in the mountains. It was also one of those days where I was invited for tea on several occasions, and attained a new record of six invites in one day! I was still cycling as the sun set, looking for a camping spot, when I was stopped by a couple having dinner at a roadside restaurant. I was invited to join them, and was spoilt with a variety of warm dishes and bread. He even arranged with the owner that I could pitch my tent on the patio of the restaurant! 

The next day I arrived within striking distance of Mount Demirkazik. I could already see the mountain on my approach to Çamardi town which lies in the mountain’s foothills. A pair of Eurasian Hobby’s was a surprise, while numerous Willow Warblers were foraging in the shrubs by the road side.

Sunrise over Mount Demirkazik, near Çamardi.

Upon reaching the village Demirkazik, I found a football field with several tents pitched on it. This seemed like a good place to set up camp, before taking a leisurely walk along the mid-slopes of the mountain. This walk produced some good birds, including my first Finsch’s Wheatear and Chukar, a species of partridge. Other nice birds included Shorelark, Greater Short-toed Lark, Northern Wheatear, and even an Eurasian Wryneck. That evening I met the other campers, a group of young rock climbers and their trainers. They invited me to join them for dinner and we ended up chatting much of the night away.

The mid-slopes of Mount Demirkazik.

Camping on a football field above Demirkazik village.

A donkey and flock of sheep grazing the foothills of Mount Demirkazik.

The next morning I was up two hours before sunrise in order to reach the higher slopes before the day started. I made it just in time, and it wasn’t five minutes later when I heard the curlew-like call of the main target bird, the Caspian Snowcock. It was the call of a bird in flight, and I heard it for a second time while moving speedily in the general direction. I had reached the cliffs at the head of a massive gorge so could go no further, so resorted to scanning the opposite rocky slopes for any movement. All I could find scurrying about the rocks were Chukar, but the snowcock was not to be seen. 

The water trough, a magnet for birds.

I spent the rest of the day in the general area, visiting the nearby water trough which attracted a number of birds, and the steeper slopes further uphill. Red-billed and Alpine Choughs were everywhere, flying back and forth and filling the sky with their black silhouettes and calls. I was also on the lookout for Radde’s Accentor, but instead had several sightings of Alpine Accentor; a nice bird to see again. The water trough attracted numbers of Shorelark, but also my first White-winged Snowfinch. Other species included Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Black Redstart, Crimson-winged Finch, Red-fronted Serin, Blue Rock Thrush, Water pipit, and a pair of Ring Ouzels.

A herder dog cooling off in the trough. I wished I could do the same!

A superb Shorelark vising the water trough.
An Asia Minor Ground Squirrel at Demirkazik.

A Red-billed Chough circling past the cliffs.

I decided to take the hiking route that follows the gorge on my way down. Still hoping for a Radde’s Accentor, I found a Wren instead, followed by the bird of the day, a Wallcreeper. A stunning male bird was working his way along the vertical rock faces near the upper reaches of the gorge. Though it was getting quite late, I had great views of the bird.

Though I did not get to see the Caspian Snowcock, and was keen to repeat the climb the next day to try again for the bird, I decided to take a day off. This was perhaps a good decision as the weather had closed in, smothering the upper half of the mountain in dense clouds. Instead I took to birding the lower part of the gorge, and had a remarkably good day. While the usual species were about, such as choughs, Rock Bunting, and Western Rock Nuthatch amongst others, there were some others such as Common and Lesser Whitethroat, and a male Blackcap. The biggest surprise was my first Red-breasted Flycatcher. A bird was flitting between the larger bushes along a smaller side branch of the gorge. I spent nearly two hours with this bird, and managed to get a few decent photos. Later in the afternoon, a brewing afternoon thunderstorm moved in, providing some spectacular views over the foothills of Mount Demirkazık.

The lower reaches of the gorge at Demirkazik.
A Red-breasted Flycatcher, the surprise bird of the day.

A brewing thunderstorm at Demirkazik.

With Erol, one of the rock climbing instructors, before leaving Demirkazik.

The next day it was time to move on, so after saying farewell to the rock climbers, I was heading towards another birding destination. It was only a day’s cycle away, through some attractive countryside which reminded me of places back home. I arrived in a village called Ovaçiftlikköy, at the doorstep of the Sultan Marsh. It was too late in the day to do any wetland birding, so I patiently had to wait until the next morning. At sunrise I was on the boardwalk that penetrates the massive expanse of reed beds that surrounds the marsh. The first bird of the day was a species I had missed in the earlier part of my travels, namely Moustached Warbler. After the first bird I saw several more, and realised that it was a rather common species. I also saw one Sedge Warbler, which made me appreciate just how boldly marked the Moustached Warbler really is. A very bold Savi's Warbler also popped out of the reeds and began to preen and sun itself very close by.

A view over the Sultan Marsh.

A Moustached Warbler.

A Water Vole nibbling away at breakfast.

A Savi's Warbler sunning itself.

I was hoping to find White-headed Duck here, but it was not to be. While the boardwalk stretched for several hundred metres into the reed beds and was equipped with two hides overlooking some open water, there was no sign of the ducks. There were however, a few Ferruginous Duck, as well as Teal, Common Pochard, Common Kingfisher, Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night-heron, Great Crested and Little Grebe. Bearded Reedlings and Eurasian Penduline Tits were common in the reed beds, and while stalking birds from the boardwalk I had several fleeting views of another potential lifer, Little Crake. Somehow I just did not get any good views of the crakes, so could not add it to my list. By midday the birds were far less active, so I decided to explore the grassland steppes on the eastern side of the marsh. Crossing the steppes I had distant views of Lesser Short-toed Lark, but due to the openness of the habitat I was no able to get any closer to them to confirm my initial identification. Another missed lifer! An old lookout tower provided a nice vantage point for looking over the eastern expanse of the marsh, and the flocks of Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Little Egret and both Black and White Storks.

A view over the eastern expanse of the Sultan Marsh.

The road from Sultan Marsh to Cappadocia.

I was looking forward to continue birding along the northern fringe of the marsh, but this turned out to be bone dry! Instead of wetland birds I found myself looking at Long-legged Buzzard, Greater short-toed Lark, Finsch’s Wheatear, European Roller, Isabelline Wheatear and other fine birds.  After spending a slow morning birding, I headed with earnest to reach Göreme in the Cappadocia region before the day reached its end. I spend three days in Cappadocia, visiting some of the tourist sites such as the Göreme Open Air Museum and Paşabağ, to see some well-preserved troglodyte villages. The former was particularly impressive with the amazing fresco artwork in the numerous chapels and churches (sorry, no photos were allowed). One has to stand in awe of what people achieved here more than a thousand years ago, having carved their complete homes in the soft volcanic stone.

Fairy chimneys at Cappadocia, central Turkey.

Some shops in Göreme, the tourist capital in Cappadocia.

An extraterrestrial taking interest in my bike!

Part of a troglodyte village in Cappadocia.

A long table and bench-like chairs carved out of stone!

Near the campsite where I was staying I discovered a wooded gulley, which proved to be very productive from a birding point of view. I found myself two lifers there, a Thrush Nighingale and a Long-eared Owl. In addition, there were scores of Garden Warblers and other nice birds, such as Blackcap, Sombre Tit, Syrian Woodpecker, Rock Bunting, and Red-backed Shrike. Every morning I woke up to a sky filled with hot air balloons, taking tourists for an aerial cruise over Cappadocia. The spectacle lasted about one hour until the last balloons trickled by and disappeared over a nearby hill. One morning I counted at least 80 balloons in the sky!    

Hot air balloons passing the camp site.

Hot air balloons filling the sky in Cappadocia.

After my stay at Cappadocia I decided to push hard for Trabzon on the Black Sea Coast. I needed to exit Turkey before my three month visa came to an end. While passing through Kayseri I was stopped by a motorist who invited me to stay over for the night. I gladly accepted Apo’s invitation and followed him into the city. That evening I met a few of his friends, who took me for a night drive through the city, and treated me to a Turkish take-out meal, ice-cream and a couple beers. It was a great evening and the Turks proved yet again that they are a hospitable nation.

Spending the night in Kayseri with my hosts, central Turkey.

Back on the road I was surprised to see Rooks for the first time in ages. Other surprises included Hobby, Tawny Pipit, Eurasian Snipe, Jackdaw, Great Reed Warbler and Golden Eagle. The most incredible sighting I had that day was that of no less than 22 Egyptian Vultures circling in the sky in the late afternoon. Typical roadside birds of the rolling countryside included Red-backed Shrike, Whinchat, Long-legged Buzzard, Corn Bunting, Lesser Grey Shrike, and Linnet, while some more unusual sightings included Common Cranes, Mistle Thrush, and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Tree pipits and Steppe Buzzards became more common as I headed further east. The terrain was great for cycling and I was able to cover over 100 km a day, which helped to rapidly close the gap between Cappadocia and Trabzon, my next major destination. Though there were more gradients to deal with, the mountains provided spectacular scenery and secluded campsites with fantastic views.

Camping in central Turkey.

This gentelman gave me some fruit at no charge; this happens occasionally!

An unexpected delay of nearly two days just outside of Erzincan made sure I would meet up with a Swiss couple cycling in the same direction. Ivo and Brigitte were also heading to Trabzon to get their visas for Iran, so we teamed up for the 250 km ride to the Black Sea coast. Though this meant I had to cut back on the birding in order to keep up, it was great to cycle in a team again. We faced some easy stretches in the beginning with some really nice long down hills. I finally saw my first Booted Eagle near Yağmurdere, and a Eurasian Nuthatch, which I had not seen in ages. Our last night of camping was at 2500 m altitude, surrounded by alpine grassland and typical alpine species such as Water Pipit and Shorelark. It was a tough climb getting there, as we were off the beaten track, but the next day was bliss as we took to the gravel roads leading down towards the Sumela Monastery. Once the first pine trees appeared I heard the call of Common Crossbill, another species I had not seen for quite some time.

Corn on the cob sold by the roadside.
Which way? We knew where to go but I took the photo anyway.

Looking back with relief on a steep climb off the beaten track.

Sunset at our campsite at 2500 m altitude.
Downhill at last!
Passing through alpine grassland on the descend to Sumela Monastery.

The descent to Sumela Monastery got steeper.

The view from the Sumela Monastery.

After a couple days in Trabzon I bid Ivo and Brigitte farewell as they were off on a three-week none-cycling trip, before returning to the city to resume their cycle tour. It had been another superb cycling partnership and another memorable four days on the road. After their departure, I spent a couple extra days in the city catching up on emails and other admin responsibilities! From Trabzon there were many birding sites along the stretch towards Georgia, my next destination country. However, owing to the mountainous terrain and long distances required to visit most of these, I decided to focus only on one site, the raptor migration hotspot at Borçka. Typical for the Black Sea Coast in autumn, I experienced the persistent rain as I took to the mountain pass leading to Borçka. I arrived late afternoon and took to the nearest hill to have a good vantage point in the morning. It was another two hours of pushing my bike up a wet and muddy track before I reached the top. 

My camp site above Borçka

One of the valleys at Borçka, which raptors fly over on migration.

The next morning was rather foggy, and I wondered if I would see any birds. Despite the weather, I saw a raptor passing over, followed by another and then several more. Due to the low light I was not able to identify them all, with many being mere silhouettes against the grey clouds. There were Black Kites, harriers, sparrowhawks, buzzards, European Honey Buzzards and a handful of unidentified eagles. They came in bursts and mixed flocks, all heading in the same direction along the Borçka valley. I counted at least 150 birds that passed over my camp that day, giving me a teaser of what raptor migrations must be like. The next day the weather cleared giving way to a blue and empty sky! Only a handful of birds passed over, which made me appreciate the spectacle I had witnessed the day before. With that I ended my three-month odyssey in Turkey, and took the afternoon to reach the Georgian border.      

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Birding Turkey's South Coast

Before reaching my next birding destination, I made a stop-over at another ancient Greek city, Miletus. At one point in time, over 2000 years ago, it was considered the greatest and wealthiest of Greek cities, even having a harbour at its door step. As with Acropolis and Ephesus, the city of Miletus also had an imposing amphitheatre which presented a nice vantage point for admiring the city. While exploring the city’s various structures I had brief views of my first Rufous Scrub Robin, but the bird was too shy to show itself again. Some lower lying areas of the city were flooded, attracting a number of species such as Spur-winged Lapwing, Little Egret, Black-crowned Night-heron and Green Sandpiper.

The flooded lower parts of Miletus, a haven for birds.

The next day I reached Bafa Gölü, a large lake reputed to support good numbers of birds during the spring, autumn and winter. Since my timing was not ideal, as it was late summer, I was still going to see what I could find. The muddy flats on the north western shore supported a large flock of Common Greenshank and Redshank, as well as Black-winged Stilt and a few Glossy Ibis. A hand-full of Dalmatian Pelicans were also about on the deeper waters. I cycled further to the northern shore of the lake, picking up Wood Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover and White Stork. Whiskered and Little Tern hovered over the water to take their pickings from the surface.

The northern waters of Bafa Gölü, Turkey.

A highway crossing south-western Turkey.

Heading further east Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes were often seen perched near the road side, amongst other species such as European Bee-eater, Magpie, and even Masked Shrike. After another day’s cycle I arrived at Köycegiz Gölü, another lake where I was hoping to find an all-new kingfisher species. I turned off the main road before the town of Köycegiz and started my search along the water channels beside the road, finding numerous heron species, including Purple Heron, Little Bittern, Squacco Heron, and Black-crowned Night-heron. A Common Kingfisher darted by along one of the channels giving me hope of a seeing a larger kingfisher species. I followed the channel until I reached a fence, and waited. It was not long before I heard it, the loud 'laugh-like' call of a White-throated Kingfisher! A bird flew up and landed on the dead branch of tree just reaching beyond the tall reeds. What a striking bird! The chestnut-brown head contrasting with the white breast and blue-green wings gives this kingfisher an exotic look. I had sufficient time to marvel at the bird before it flew away across the reeds and dropped out of sight. Very elated I returned along the channel to the main road, only to see another White-throated Kingfisher! It was a very good end to a hard day’s cycling.  

This was the closest I could get to the splendid White-throated Kingfisher.

After making a pit stop at the town of Köycegiz to get supplies, I headed for Tepearasi village on the eastern side of the lake. I arrived at sunset and pitched my tent near the Liquidambar forest, a unique woodland dominated by the tree species commonly known as Turkish sweetgum and which is restricted to a small area in south-western Turkey. Next morning I was up early for some forest birding but the woodland was rather quiet as expected for the time of year. Only Great Tit, Blackbird, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Jay, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, Spotted Flycatcher and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker made appearances. I decided to head out to the tourist town of Dalyan further to the south, racking up Zitting Cisticola in the tall roadside grass and an unexpected Sedge Warbler in a roadside channel. A Krüper’s Nuthatch in the more open woodland was another surprise. Dalyan was crowded with holiday-makers; countless boats were taking tourists up and down the river that connects the lake with the Mediterranean. I was ready to leave not long after arriving, but decided to stay until the next morning hoping to find a rare falcon swooping past the spectacular limestone cliffs. The Lycian rock tombs dating back to between the 2nd and 4th century were also quite a sight.

Turtle fountain in Dalyan; Loggerhead Turtles breed at the coast near Dalyan.

The cliffs at Dalyan, with the Lycian rock tombs.

After scanning the cliffs for the last time the next morning, finding only Western Rock Nuthatch and Alpine Swift, I took to the road in an easterly direction. A European Roller on the outskirts of Dalyan provided a moment of excitement, and then it was back to pedalling full-stroke. By evening I had got as far as Fethiye, and camped in the pine woods well beyond the borders of the city. I was now entering the zone of the South Coast and I could already feel the heaviness of the humidity. Beyond Fethiye I took the highland route to reach Antalya, rather than the coastal road. Taking the plateau road had its cost, as it meant a 25 km uphill cycle in temperatures above 30 Degrees Celcius – I don’t know how touring cyclists deal with this road in mid-summer! After an entire afternoon of etching my way uphill, I finally made it near the top, where I took a break to eat some traditional Turkish food served by the roadside. I also had two glasses of home-made Ayran, a drink I was now well and truly addicted to. Ayran is a mixture of yoghurt and water with a dash of salt, and tastes truly marvelous. I was in the habit of consuming at least a litre every day. 

Roadside restaurant selling tradition Turkish food and home-made Ayran.

A typical roadside dining table in Turkey; no need for chairs!

My decision to take the road across the plateau to Antalya proved to be a good one, as I thoroughly enjoyed the easy ride as well as the good birds. Passing some stubble wheat fields I found my first Cretzschmar's Bunting, a bird I had been pining for since arriving in Greece more than two months earlier. Two pairs were foraging amongst the short wheat stalks, providing unrivaled views. It was sometime later that I realised I had better get back to cycling. The list of beauties continued with Sombre Tit, Rüppell’s Warbler, Isabelline Wheatear, Crag Martin, Woodchat Shrike, Short-toed Eagle, Ortolan Bunting and my first Rock Sparrow. The road continued through scenic highland steppes, with only a few minor gradients and plenty of open stretches, making it perhaps my most memorable day of cycling in Turkey. Though I missed a potential White-throated Robin on the way, as the views were dreadfully brief and poor, I was rewarded with three Crimson-winged Finches before sunset.
A beautiful male Cretzschmar's Bunting.
An Isabelline Wheatear, showing the characteristic black facial lore.

A Western Rock Nuthatch; I love the call of this species!

The end of the plateau before the decline to Antalya on the South Coast.

A young Rock Sparrow. Adults sometimes have a yellow spot on the breast.
Cliffs on the way to Antalya, after leaving the plateau.

The downhill to Antalya was long and occasionally steep. In hindsight I should have spent an extra day on the plateau for birding, as it was a shame to leave the plateau so soon, and especially after the effort it took to reach the top. I made a mental note to cross the plateau again on my next visit to Turkey. Closer to Antalya I met two Serbian touring cyclists heading in the opposite direction. They were only touring for a month and were half-way through their trip. Similarly to me, they enjoyed cycling the highlands where temperatures were cooler!

Two Serbian cyclists on a month-long tour through Turkey.

I spent two nights in Antalya, soaking up some of the night-life on the streets and getting a new rear tyre – my first tyre replacement since starting my journey in Norway 14 000 km earlier. White-spectacled Bulbul was a lifer for me, and saw them frequently in pairs in the coastal scrub and in the courtyard of the guesthouse where I stayed. From Antalya I took the coastal road to my next birding destination, Göksu Delta, some 400 km to the east. On the first day I managed to clock 150 km, thanks to a really early start and a road without gradients. This broke my record of 134 km achieved in one day in Norway, which was a far tougher ride with regular gradients and drenching rain. So I was not proud to have broken the Norway record, and especially not by a margin of only 16 km. Besides, 150 km in a day is still child’s play, some cyclists have reached distances of 300 or even 400 km in a single day – now that’s more like it!

The city of Antalya on Turkey's South Coast.

Antalya's night-life: great atmosphere.

By the second day the road began to hug the hill slopes, giving fantastic views over the Mediterranean. This also meant some tough climbs, the kind of climbs that make you wonder whether you are still doing the right thing. At times like these it’s always good to remember that a hard day’s cycling beats a good day’s working!        

Greenhouses across Turkey's south coast for growing bananas and other.

Mamure Castle near Anamur, built by Romans between the 3rd and 4th century, .

A roadside market, or rather, a shopping centre!

After one particularly tough uphill, I remember wishing for some respite as I rounded the last corner. My wish was granted and when I had wiped the last of the sweat from my eyes, I saw before me a roadside stall serving tea and locally-grown bananas. Not to mention the cold water pumping from the nearby spring. I was saved! After wolfing down nearly an entire bunch of bananas and resting for over an hour, I was off again. Due to the tough cycling birding was not high on my agenda, but I did notice the usual species such as Collared Dove, Red-backed Shrike, White Wagtail, Red-rumped Swallow and White-spectacled Bulbul. On the fourth day after leaving Antalya, I finally arrived in Taşucu, the nearest town to Göksu Delta.
My bike under the watchful eye of a turtle in Taşucu.

I was very eager to explore this wetland, so wasted no time in getting started. My first stop in the late afternoon was the watch tower on the lake’s southern side. From here I had my first views of the Turkey race of Purple Swamphen, with its pale blue-grey head. Two birds were foraging on the edge of the reedbeds some distance away. A Gull-billed Tern was a pleasant surprise as it swopped back and forth over the water, all the while dainty Sand Martins and Barn Swallows were passing the tower on their way to their night roost. I also got my first views of the delicate Graceful Prinia, which was common everywhere.
Looking over the reedbeds of Göksu Delta from the tower.

The Graceful Prinia; a diminutive but lively bird. Note the tail bands.

A Western Marsh Harrier patrolling the reedbeds at Göksu Delta.

I returned to the tower early the next morning – nothing could prepare me for what awaited me. The first I saw was not a bird, but a Golden Jackal. The jackal had not noticed me up on the tower so was leisurely trotting along a track in my direction. It stopped mid-way and made a lunge at something close by. Out of the dense shrubbery flew a female Black Francolin! She headed straight for the tower, flying low, and I was able to see the rufous hind-neck before the bird disappeared in the shrubs below me. By now the adrenaline was pumping wildly! After settling back into a normal heart-rate and routine of scanning the surroundings for birds, I glimpsed two more female francolins. Though I was hoping to see a striking male bird, I was more than satisfied with what I had seen thus far. Bearded Reedlings, more Purple Swamphens and a glimpse of a White-throated Kingfisher were additional bonuses. Before the heat of the day settled in, I took a cycle along the eastern shore of the lake picking up more lifers, such as Armenian Gull and Rufous Scrub Robin. Other species included Western Marsh Harrier, Squacco Heron, Greater Flamingo, Yellow Wagtail, Purple Heron, and Calandra Lark.
A Golden Jackal with large pups, as seen from the tower.

I spent a second morning at the hide, and though it was not as action-packed as the first, more new birds awaited me. I spotted my first Savi’s Warbler, directly in front of the tower in the reeds. The dark plumage being an obvious feature of this species, making separation from European Reed Warbler fairly easy. A group of Penduline Tits was also moving between the reeds while Water Rail called from further away. I again headed off well after sun-rise to explore a second lake further to the east, separated from the sea by only a beach. Walking along the shore close to the beach I picked up my first Greater Sand Plover, being somewhat larger and more heavily built than the other waders present, such as Sanderling, Kentish Plover, Curlew Sandpiper and even some Dunlin. A flock of gulls roosting on the shore drew my attention; these were not Black-headed Gulls in non-breeding plumage - it was a flock of Slender-billed Gulls! To round things off, there was also a Ruddy Turnstone, Grey Plover and Common Ringed Plover patrolling the shore.

A Common Kingfisher at Göksu Delta.

A Slender-billed Gull at Göksu Delta. Note the long bill and sloping forehead.

To make progress after two days of birding, I was back on the road heading towards the city of Mersin. While pushing my bike on the pavement to avoid the busy traffic, I met Mustafa sitting on a bench with a back-pack beside him. At first I thought he was a back-packer, but it turned out that he was from nearby Tarsus city, and was on his way to Antalya for a week. He was keen to host me for the night but because he was traveling, he called a friend in Tarsus to take his place. And so it was that I headed out to Tarsus to meet Yunus, my unexpected host for the night. I was yet again treated to Turkish hospitality by Yunus and his kind family; enjoying Turkish food and drink before crawling into a soft bed other than my sleeping bag. Even my dirty laundry was taken care of. Next morning Yunus kindly cycled the first 15 km with me to lead me out of Tarsus and onto the road that would take me to my next destination, Mount Demirkazik. Tarsus would be another place to visit on my return to Turkey in the future...