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.      

No comments:

Post a Comment