Sunday, October 27, 2013

Turkey, at long last...

Alex and I crossed into Turkey from Greece just before sunset, and started our five-day journey together. I had been looking forward to cycling Turkey for a long time, so was pleased to have finally arrived. We took the coastal road as far as possible, mainly to avoid the busy main road between Greece and İstanbul. It was perhaps also the more scenic route, but did little to ease the headwind that we faced. The wind was relentless and always seemed to blow directly from the front no matter which way we were going.

Coastal view on the way to İstanbul.

Though this was only the second time I had ever cycled with another cyclist for any appreciable distance, it was a good partnership. We had similarly sized and synchronised appetites, so when one needed to stop for sustenance, the other was always ready to do the same. We ambled on towards İstanbul, frequently greeted by the locals and invited to drink tea. Watermelons sold by the roadside always went down well in the heat of the day, as well as the self-made Greek salads relished with local breads. I even had my first beer in five years! Not much birding was done along the way!

Cycling along the road works to avoid the traffic.

Alex beside a modified motorcycle of sorts.

My first beer in five years! It tasted great!

Alex looking out to sea from our campsite; my first night without a tent.

Long before we reached the metropolis of İstanbul, we were drawn into the bustling traffic streaming eastwards. We had heard from other sources that it is a challenge to approach the city by bike, and we can confirm that this is indeed the case! It was therefore with much relief as we arrived in the Old City area of İstanbul, where we had the first real chance to get out of the mainstream traffic. We had a couple glasses each of freshly squeezed orange juice to celebrate our arrival.

Heading for İstanbul, with miles still to go.

Waiting patiently for fresh orange juice upon arrival in İstanbul.

I am Turkish! Great country with great people!

We spent a morning exploring the Taksim area, and also took time off in a Taksim Park, visited some bike shops, and raced through the traffic on our unloaded bikes. Alex was always ahead, having more guts to face the traffic than I. I got the hang of it though! Alex managed to sell his bike at one of the shops, as he was planning to continue on to India with only a backpack and his guitar. After a final beer we parted ways, with Alex heading off to meet his host in the city. I needed to organised my gear for the next stretch through Western Anatolia, so spent a few extra days at a hostel. Looking back, the time spent with Alex on the road was the most insightful period of my journey so far, for which I am most grateful.

İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) leading up to Taksim Square.

Steamed and grilled corn was for sale everywhere in İstanbul.

A friend in South Africa had recommended some sites worth visiting during my stay, so I spent a fair amount of time exploring some of İstanbul’s finest attractions, such as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), the Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern amongst others. Amongst all these activities, I shamefully did not get around to using my binoculars during my entire stay. However, I did not fail to notice the Laughing Doves perched in the trees beside the hostel’s roof-top restaurant while having breakfast, or the Yelkouan Shearwaters passing the ferry while crossing the Bosphorus strait that separates Europe and Asia.

The busy Bosphorus strait, with passenger ferries going to and fro.
Inside the Basilica Cistern.

The splendid interior of the Blue Mosque.

The Hagia Sophia at night.

Inside the Hagia Sophia.

Unknown to me upon arrival, my stay in İstanbul coincided with the FIFA U-20 World Cup final between Uruguay and France. It also so happened that a group of spirited Uruguayan supporters was staying at the same hostel. When they heard I was from South Africa, I was promptly invited to join them and was generously handed a ticket (I previously lived in Kimberley, the city that hosted the Uruguayan team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup). Though Uruguay did not win the match after a nail-biting penalty shoot-out, the experience was certainly the highlight of my stay in İstanbul.     

The Uruguayan supporters moments before entering the stadium.
With the Uruguayan supporters; great energy!

Dedicated Uruguayan supporters!

Some football action at the FIFA U-20 World Cup final.

To avoid the nerve-racking traffic on my departure from İstanbul, I took the ferry from the Old City across the Marmara Sea to Bursa. The cycle from the hostel to the ferry port was short, while the ferry ride was relaxing. The bonus was that by taking the ferry, I had another chance to watch Yelkouan Shearwaters, this time with binoculars. Being a fairly large city, Bursa presented a minor challenge to negotiate while heading for my first birding destination in Turkey – Mount Uludağ. It is the highest mountain in Western Anatolia at 2500 m, and it is claimed that its summit is visible from Istanbul nearly 150 km away on clear days. After several hours of cycling the gradual climb towards the top, I was stopped by an elderly lady filling water canisters at a roadside spring (these are common in Turkey). She insisted I go no further by my own, as the forests were crawling with animals that would make a short meal of me. At least, this is what I understood. After several attempts to explain that the odd dog (or wolf) would not be a threat, I succumbed to her insistence, and waited for a friend of hers to arrive with a vehicle. And so it was that I got a lift for the last 10 km to the ski resort near the mountain top. In the end I was quite grateful for the ride, as the fog became increasing dense as we ascended while the temperature dropped considerably. After being dropped off at the forlorn resort in the fog and cold, I bid the driver a good journey back home, I took to the nearest patch of forest to pitch my tent. 

The ski resort near the peak of Mount Uludağ, at an altitude of 2500 m.

I spent the weekend camping above the Uludağ ski resort, which is transformed into hub of activity in winter, and enjoyed the absolute solitude that reigns during summer. The coniferous forest surrounding my tent held a number of new birds for me. The most exciting to see was Krüper’s Nuthatch, which I had only got a brief glimpse of on the way up. Being more agile than its larger relatives, I regrettably did not get a photograph of this beautiful bird, with its grey plumage and rufous chest patch. Other woodland species that were new to me included Firecrest and Common Rosefinch, amongst a number of familiar species such as Goldcrest, Chiffchaff, Coal Tit, Robin and even Black Woodpecker. Pallid Swifts circled about the few resort hotels. The nearby alpine scrub delivered another two lifers, including Water Pipit and the splendid Red-fronted Serin. The latter were in the company of a mixed flock of Eurasian Greenfinch, Linnet and Eurasian Serin.

Ski lifts at Mount Uludağ, waiting for the winter.

On my second day, I took a four-hour hike up to the top of the mountain peak in search of a species I had last searched for in Slovenia, namely Alpine Accentor. The trek to the top delivered a couple of Ring Ouzels, and my first Shorelark of the Turkish/Caucasus race; a small flock of immature birds were accompanied by a single adult. The rocky crags at the mountain peak did not disappoint, with a sighting of one Alpine Accentor followed by a group of six birds foraging amongst the rocks and scant alpine vegetation. Perhaps it was the scenic back-drop that made this sighting even more spectacular and memorable. I hiked back down to the resort in high spirits, and relished every one of the several encounters I had with Red-fronted Serin flocks. Uludağ was the perfect start to my exploration of Turkey’s avifauna!   
Near the peak on Mount Uludağ.

A male Red-fronted Serin, a common but splendid species at Mount Uludağ.

With a great deal of reluctance I took to the long descent from the Uludağ resort to reach my next destination to the west, on the coast of the Marmara Sea. This was to be another fantastic experience, with more excellent birding in store while also making new friends.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Birding along the Egnatia route – Part 2

It was not far from Asprovalta to my next birding spot, the Strimón Delta near Touzla. As I approached I could make out the shape of a Western Marsh Harrier hunting over the reedbeds, my first sighting in ages. Roosting in the shallows of the delta was a small flock of my first Eurasian Spoonbills, towering over the few Little Ringed Plovers that accompanied them. A small harbour near the delta held Pygmy and Great Cormorant, Black-headed Gull, and numerous Common and Little Terns.

A Little Tern at the Strimón Delta, northern Greece.

Further exploration of the delta revealed a single Eurasian Curlew, Common Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwit. I was excited when I was sure I saw a few Caspian Terns flying in the distance, but the birds soon disappeared and were not seen again. By midday I was on the road again towards the city of Kavala, where I was impressed by the well-preserved aqueduct, which dates back to the sixteenth century and was still operational until 1911. Pallid Swifts looked nearly equally impressive as they glided on stiff wings over the aqueduct and around the taller buildings.
Part of the aquaduct in Kavala city.

The next delta on my ‘must visit’ list was the Nestos Delta, which is reputed to be the most reliable site in Europe for Spur-winged Lapwing. It was not long after turning off the Egnatia road when four lapwings flew overheard just before dusk. I was still passing through the vast mosaic of agricultural crops ranging from kiwis to corn when I heard their calls – unknown to me at the time but distinctly lapwing-like. Before I ran out of options for a campsite, I decided to pitch my tent near a kiwi crop. I soon realised that I was going to share the site with the rather large mosquitoes that inhabited the delta. For the next few days while I was in the area, they made sure I retired early to my tent!

Spur-winged Lapwing, Nestos Delta, northern Greece.

The next day I explored the lagoons along the west coast of the delta, with the most notable species being my first Glossy Ibis for Europe, Mediterranean Gull, Dalmatian Pelican, Greater Flamingo, Northern Shoveler, Green Sandpiper, Pied Avocet, Great Egret, and more Spur-winged Lapwings. A pair of lapwings was found rearing their recently-hatched young on a grassy traffic island just north of Keramoti town. Inhabitants of the reedbeds included Eurasian Reed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Cetti’s Warbler, Common Nightingale and the rather stunning Bearded Reedling. Besides the wetland birds, Eurasian Hoopoes, European Bee-eaters, Spanish Sparrows, Red-rumped Swallows, and Crested Larks were commonly encountered. European Nightjars called every day at sunset, sometimes joined by Eurasian Scops Owl when woodland was nearby.  

A male Bearded Reedling; what a bird!

On my last morning at the Nestos Delta, I was surprised by a rustling sound in the grass close to my tent. A hedgehog (Northern White-breasted Hedgehog) was busy making its way through my camp site, seemingly oblivious to my presence. This was my first close encounter with a European species of hedgehog, and not wanting to disturb it, I stood in silence watching, while resisting the temptation to dash for my camera. After the good start to the day, I headed up the western side of the Nestos River, the magnificent woodland presenting a completely difference birding experience. Eurasian Golden Oriole, Syrian Woodpecker, Common Cuckoo and Great Spotted Woodpecker were regularly heard, with the most surprising species being Grey-headed Woodpecker. Other good birds to find included Blackcap, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, and my first Masked Shrike, a species which reaches it most western distribution in northern Greece. I followed the river as far as the Nestos Canyon, similarly spectacular as the lower reaches of the river. The rocky environs provided habitat for Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush, Linnet, and Black-eared Wheatear, while a pair of Black Stork soared above the hills.   

Birding in woodland along the Nestos River.

Woodland along the banks of the Nestos River.

Upper reaches of the Nestos Canyon.

Not having had enough of the Nestos Delta, I headed back down the eastern side of the Nestos River to reach its mouth. However, the road to the river mouth became pretty hard to navigate as I got closer, and a chat with some locals revealed that it was completely overgrown with vegetation. Instead I was directed to a beach close by, where I could set up camp if I wished. It turned out that it was not an ‘official’ beach, so I had the place to myself and enjoyed an early evening swim while watching Mediterranean Gulls passing by… 

Camping on an 'unofficial' beach.

The next morning I made my way back to the Egnatia road and headed for Lagos and the lagoons that lay beyond it. On the way I experienced Greek generosity when I was given home-grown vegetables on two occasions; so with bulging panniers and bags hanging from my handle bar filled with cucumbers and tomatoes, I headed for the lagoons. The lagoons held Dalmatian Pelican, Great White Pelican, Greater Flamingo, Little Egret, Eurasian Spoonbill and several other common species. A single Mute Swan on one of the smaller lagoons was a surprise, and so were the Skylarks that flushed from the surrounding grasslands. A familiar call from the dense grassland revealed the presence of Common Quail, a species more likely to be heard than seen. I also got my first views of Collared Pratincole, which appeared to be nesting amongst the piles of churned earth on the agricultural fields. Several waders were about, but not in large numbers, and included Common Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Grey Plover, Green Sandpiper, Kentish Plover and a few Eurasian Curlews. 

Greater Flamingos on a lagoon.

Black-winged Stilt.

A Collared Pratincole in flight, showing the rufous underwings.

After relaxing on the beach, and enjoying another swim in the Mediterranean waters, I headed north to Lake Ismarida which is considered a good site for Ruddy Shelduck, a species high on my bird hit list. I got directions to the lake from some local lads in a small town, and two of them insisted on riding ahead with their scooter to show me the way – the directions to the lake were easy so perhaps they were just looking for an excuse to go for a ride! The lake produced some nice species, but unfortunately no lifers. Bird species that I had not seen for a while included Common Pochard, Great Crested Grebe, and Little Grebe on the open water, with Whiskered Tern, Wood Sandpiper and Ferruginous Duck making occasional fly-bys. A pair of Gull-billed Terns was a nice surprise. Cycling along the wooded stream that feeds the lake with water, I found an active Penduline Tit nest. I watched the nest for a while as the birds flew back and forth bringing nesting material for the final touches to their suspended home.   

The Greek lads who insisted on showing me the way to Lake Ismarida.

A Penduline Tit leaving the nest, Lake Ismarida.

Reaching the end of northeastern Greece, I had one last site I wanted to visit. By now I had done a great deal of wetland birding, so was looking forward to exploring some other habitats. But before heading north to the Dadia Forest Reserve, I made a brief stop-over at one last wetland, the Evros Delta. Arriving in the late afternoon, I was rewarded with good views of European Roller and my first Levant Sparrowhawk. I had been hoping to see the latter for quite some time so was pleased to have finally caught up with it. The delta was far larger than I expected, so I could have easily spent a full day or two there. Besides the usual wetland species, there were also large numbers of waders in the shallows. A few hundred Spotted Redshanks were completely unexpected, as I had not seen this species since Norway in 2012. Most of the birds were still in their striking breeding plumage; all black with a generous sprinkling of fine white spots. There were also Northern Lapwings, Spur-winged Lapwings, Black-tailed Godwits, Ruffs and Marsh Sandpipers to complement the assortment of waders. A male Reed Bunting was also an unexpected surprised, while other interesting passerines included Calandra Lark, Greater Short-toed Lark and Tawny Pipit. I also found my first Isabelline Wheatear on the open flats. After stalking a pair for a while to get better views, I realised they were attending to their hungry offspring. I left them alone knowing that I would see the species again in Turkey.

Salt marsh habitat at the Evros Delta.

I made a 40 km detour to the north of the Egnatia road to reach the village of Dadia. The Dadia Forest is well known for its diversity of breeding raptors, with 36 of the 38 species of European birds of prey recorded in the region. Dadia also supports three of Europe’s four vulture species, the most notable of these being the Eurasian Black Vulture. I spent two days in the Dadia forest Reserve and spent much of the time at the observation hide over-looking the vulture feeding restaurant. All three species of vultures visited the feeding area, including Eurasian Black Vulture, Eurasian Griffon Vulture and Egyptian Vulture. While I had seen Griffon Vulture previously in Croatia, the other two were lifers for me. The occasional Black Kite also made an appearance looking for scraps, and so did Ravens and Hooded Crows. Though there were not many raptor species about at the time, there was something surreal about just sitting in the hide watching the skies for incoming birds. Back at the reserve’s information centre I was again exposed to Greek generosity, when the staff gave me food for the road and a marvelous photo record of the birds of Dadia. 

Vultures at the feeding station in Dadia Forest Reserve.
As I departed from Dadia village I had a glimpse of a Booted Eagle flying overhead, followed by a Lesser Spotted Eagle carrying reptilian prey intended for a hungry offspring or two. Closer to the border with Turkey, I stocked up on some Greek yoghurt in the village of Peplos. While over-looking the border crossing, I turned to take a photograph of the sunset behind me, and was surprised when a touring cyclist popped into the frame. Alex had cycled from France, his home country, and was also heading for Turkey, Iran and India, much like me. The decision to cross the border at sunset was sealed and so we started our five-day journey to Istanbul.