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...       

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