Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Heading into Western Anatolia

After Uludağ, I headed west towards Bandermir and the coast of the Marmara Sea. I was using Green and Moorhouse’s book, ‘A Birdwatchers’ Guide to Turkey’ to decide on the best sites to visit across the enormous expanse of this country. Based on the site description for the next birding location on my agenda, Kocaçay Delta, I was not expecting to find much other than low scrubland. However, what was described as coastal scrub in the book turned out to be magnificent coastal woodland, being so dense in places that it could also be referred to as forest. I had barely begun to digest the potential of the birdlife there, when a local pulled up beside me in a 4x4 vehicle. I soon guessed he must be a photographer, judging by the stickers on the door. Alper had summed me up too, so was keen to meet up with me later to chat about birds and photography. I was in luck, what could be better than hanging out with a local who has the same interests and knows the area?

Woodland close to the beach at the Kocaçay Delta.
Denser woodland at the Kocaçay Delta 
It was late afternoon already and Alper has some chores to attend to, but returned later that evening to my camp site as promised, with juice and a watermelon. I was experiencing real Turkish hospitality, something that the Turks are well known for. Later that night, the call of a Tawny Owl echoed through the woodland not far from my camp. Next morning I went for a cycle along some of the tracks through the woodland towards the delta’s lake. Though the woodland birds were more quite now than in spring, the birding was still very good. Middle Spotted, Lesser Spotted and Green Woodpeckers were often seen pecking their way along the branches of taller trees, while Eurasian Golden Orioles called from dense canopies. Red-backed and Masked Shrikes were also common, the latter being a highlight as I had only seen it once before in Greece. Cirl Buntings were seen in the more open scrub towards the beach, where I also found a Sardinian Warbler, much to my surprise.

A poor photo of a striking bird, the Masked Shrike.

Though the lake looked fairly quite at first glance, patience revealed flocks of Glossy Ibis and Great Cormorant flying by and Little and Great Crested Grebes on the open waters. The muddy shoreline was patrolled by Common Greenshank, Wood and Green Sandpiper. This is where I also found my first Water Rail; I recognised the call and waited while peering across a small patch of mudflat between the reeds. The bird came into view, saw me, and ducked back out of sight, giving me just enough time to get a reasonable view.  Back in the woodland, I found another first which had eluded me for long – Common Kingfisher. What makes the woodland even more special is that much of it is also flooded, providing lily-covered ponds for a myriad of water-loving birds. I soon learnt that the kingfishers were common here, and had numerous sightings over the couple days that I spent there. Pygmy Cormorant made full use of the ponds, as there were always a few birds present at each, perched on dead branches over the water.

A lily-covered pool, one of many tucked away within the woodland.

Water lily. 

After work, Alper came round to pick me up for a late afternoon session of bird photography. We headed for the river mouth where I was hoping to find another bird on my hit list. As Alper had promised, a Ruddy Shelduck was at the mouth, standing on a sand spit. It was not long before a flock of shelduck flew in to join the bird. Another memorable sighting, and in the company of a new friend. We savoured the scene before us as more species revealed themselves, such as Whiskered and Sandwich Tern, Black-headed Gull and a few Common Redshank.

Bird life near the mouth of the delta. Photo taken by Alper.

A Little Egret and Ruddy Shelduck at the mouth of the Kocaçay Delta.

A Ruddy Shelduck coming in to land. Photo taken by Alper.

With Alper after the amazing Ruddy Shelduck sighting. Photo taken by Alper.
That evening Alper returned again to my camp site, and brought along more Turkish treats. I was really being spoilt! Joined by one of his friends, we took to the tracks through the woodland for a night drive in search of Wild Boar, which seemed to be one of Alpers favourite activities. Numerous Black-crowned Night-herons were seen hunting by the ponds, while a European Nightjar perched on a wire beside the road was a pleasant surprised. My first Wild Boar sighting was that of a sow with three piglets crossing an open area, what a moment it was; a mammal lifer! This sighting was soon followed by three young boars, which also caused quite a stir in the vehicle. Alper clearly never tires of seeing these animals and took every opportunity to get a photograph. On our return to my camp we had two hedgehog sightings, just to round off the evening I suppose! It was a long but exhilarating night, and one that will be remembered. I am grateful to Alper for hosting me with such much enthusiasm and energy; it was a real privilege to get to know him.

With Alper after an amazing night looking for Wild Boars. Photo taken by Alper.

The next morning it was time to move on, but not after an extended session of birding in the woodland. Some interesting species included Hawfinch, Eurasian Hoopoe, Long-tailed Tit and a possible female Semi-collared Flycatcher. I had agreed to meet Alper at his work place in nearby Karacabey for a final goodbye, so popped by his office for a visit. Seeing Alper in a smart shirt was quite different from the Alper I had got to know over the past two days – I knew where he got his kicks from! After saying farewell, I took the opportunity to meet up with another Alper, a part-time bee-keeper, in Karacabey. I had actually met Alper the bee-keeper before I met Alper the phoptograher, and after exchanging numbers, agreed to meet up with him again. Alper kindly took me out for lunch, gave me a jar of his finest honey and pollen (a completely new eating sensation for me), and even arranged a place for me to spend the night, where I again experienced amazing Turkish hospitality. 

Before beginning my southward journey through Western Anatolia, I made a brief stop-over at the Kusçenneti National Park, south of Bandirma. Here there were several waterbird species of interest, including Dalmatian Pelican and my first Cattle Egrets in the Northern Hemisphere. Not far from the park entrance was an impressively high tower overlooking an artificial breeding site for the pelicans. Though the breeding period was over, there were quite a few pelicans roosting on the nesting platforms and I could just imagine the frenzy that must have prevailed when the adults were feeding their hungry offspring. Some interesting woodland birds included Olivaceous Warbler, Syrian Woodpecker, Eurasian Scops Owl and another possible Semi-collared Flycatcher. Yet again the views of a female bird were too brief to be sure of the exact identity.

Dalmatian Pelicans on the breeding platforms at the Kusçenneti National Park, Bandirma.
Waiting for the train.
I cycled on through the towns of Balikesir and Savaştepe, being offered tea on the sidewalk by shopkeepers and meeting locals while filling my water bottles at roadside springs. One morning just after setting off on the roads, I met a group of local cyclists pushing hard in the opposite direction. The first thing they wanted to know from me was whether there was anything they could do for me! You have to hand it to the Turks, they really are hospitable people.

Getting closer to Bergama, I passed vast agricultural lands were producers were harvesting the fruits of their labour. I began to realise what it must take to produce fresh food the old fashioned way, without much machinery, and then to harvest each vegetable by hand. From what I could see, tomatoes were everywhere. Their smelled filled my nostrils as I passed hectares upon hectares of sliced tomatoes being sun-dried.

Tomatoes everywhere, being sun-dried.
Upon arriving at Bergama, I visited the local food market to get some ingredients for dinner. The market was a hive of activity, with every fresh vegetable imaginable on sale. Next morning I took the cable car route to get to the top of the hill to visit the Acropolis of Pergamum, the ancient city that overlooks the modern Bergama. Hours passed before I managed to pull myself away from marvelling at the old temples and in particular, the impressive amphitheatre. Back on the road and with the sun setting I was hoping I would make it to the camp site in Yenisakran on the west coast. While following directions I got lost and found myself at a beach restaurant late at night. After about three glasses of tea the owner indicated that I could pitch my tent on the beach, and use the shower at the back of the restaurant. All was well!

The amphitheatre at the Acropolis of Pergamum.
The Temple of Trajan at the Acropolis.
Camping on the beach in Yenisakran.
Keen to get moving south along the west coast, I passed through the city of Izmir and on to Selçuk. While Izmir is Turkey’s third largest city, getting to the city centre did not pose the same challenge as Istanbul. At Selçuk I visited the ancient city of Ephesus, marvelling yet again at the remains of what must have been a thriving community in its day. A European Roller occupied the ancient sport arena, while a European Honey Buzzard flew overhead. Next morning I was alerted to the presence of a much sought-after species in Turkey, Rüppell’s Warbler. Much like Sardinian Warbler, this is a stunning warbler with the all-black throat being an additional feature. This sighting more than made up for missing out on White-throated Robin and Cinereous Bunting which are also reputed to occur in the area. Satisfied with the new lifer, I took to the road again to reach the next birding site, a good distance away and over many hills and mountains.  

The stage of the amphitheatre at Ephesus.

Curetes Street within the ancient Greek city of Ephesus.

The reconstructed library at Ephesus.