Birdwatching news and bird photography from Azerbaijan- by Kai Gauger and Michael Heiß

Mittwoch, 12. September 2018

Where the sun burns the sea

Text & Photos © Martin Scott

Caspian Sea sunrise

“Where?”, “They have a Grand Prix there don’t they?”, “Isn’t that where Borat is from?”, “Didn’t they win the Eurovision Song Contest?” were just some of the responses I got when I said I was off on holiday to Azerbaijan. So knowledge on this country is limited shall we say, to my friends at least

A busman’s holiday, doing bird surveys on the eastern fringe of the Western Palearctic. In recent years my birding has largely focused on the WPs western edge, on the west of Scotland, but I am more than familiar with the Caucasus too having spent much of 1995 in Armenia and last spring touring Georgia.

What I didn’t expect though was the frenetic pace of the birding. I'd done my research but that simply doesn’t mentally or physically prepare you. Besh Barmag is basically a seawatch spot at this time of the year, a big sit, vis-migration at its finest. I have learned that 12,000 birds or so in a day is deemed ‘quiet’, while 27,000 Garganey can rattle past you in no time, and you have to keep tabs.

You sit atop the Caspian Sea viewing east from a plastic garden chair on the edge of the old raised beach. Dust blows, salt spray fills the air and mixes with lashings of suncream to form an annoyingly sticky concoction while you still fry under the searing sun. It’s not typical Scotsman habitat, but I perversely love it. None of this is negative. It is just what it is and it all adds to the fun.

Some shade is provided by a portable pavilion tent or you can cat nap under a bush or in the shade of the project van if you find a quiet moment (good luck with the latter). Healthy packed lunches keep you energised and the chat on site is intensely bird focussed. Discussion is on going throughout, talking through every birds jizz, movement, age and how it should be entered on the project tablet linked to the Trektellen app.

ID pitfalls come and go. Ringtail harriers are easier than I remember while separating fly-by Slender-billed from Black-headed Gull is not. Scrutiny of a Dalmatian Pelican flock eked out a lone White, while you soon become honed into separating Blue-cheeked from European Bee-eater on call. Then there was the terns. By the thousand. A constant procession of marsh terns to test you skills all at differing ranges and for the first few hours viewed into the rising sun. Challenges don’t come much more satisfying.

A special mention must go to the whole Azerbaijani team, from the dedicated chef Miryusif (up at 4am to cook pancakes) to Leyla and her transcribing and Rovshan and his logistics. Pia from Germany is co-ordinating things and does a truly remarkable job keeping it all together, and doing full shifts on the migration site, and all on 4 hours sleep a night. She is inspirational, dedicated and personifies passion.

Would I recommend it? Yes, but not if you are flaky, picky or like your sleep. If you are willing to graft and get stuck in you will be greatly rewarded. Not just from Pallid Harriers drifting by and Menetries Warbler in the scrub but by the entire sense of participation, contribution and discovery. Everyone here is pioneering. There is much to learn in Azerbaijan.

Observation spot
Dalmatian and White Pelican
Garganey migration
Golden Oriole

Sonntag, 5. August 2018

Final month of the breeding bird survey in western Azerbaijan

Text & Photos © Max Baumgarten

Back home in Germany I found some time to finally give an update on what happened in Azerbaijan's birdlife in June. Most apparent were the omnipresent babies of various species. Although some species were already in the second round others just started breeding or were still courtshipping.

Crested Lark fledling
Can you ID this bird?

Besides babies and rather secretive parents, June started with something nice and unexpected. Oystercatchers could be observed in Kura River close to the Georgian border where they were described breeding back in 1884 in Radde's „Ornis Caucasica“. The birds showed typical breeding behaviour and were once observed laying down in a way they would only do on eggs, shaking left and right while slowly laying down.

The Kura river also held good numbers of Terns (Little, Common & Whiskered), Little ringed Plovers and Common Sandpipers. Everything that was supposed to be in a natural river of that size was present.

Whiskered Tern
Little Ringed Plover: Common breeder along the Kura river

From the Georgian border where Raphael had his last day in early June I moved on to close gaps and visit places that I had not been to before. Some still holding surprises like the highest density of Western Rock Nuthatches (8 Ind. in 10 minutes) so far.

This is where Nuthatches thrive
Injury feigning clearly shows it's a wader!

In mid June a good friend of mine Simon Ostermann joined and we made a little tour around the country also visiting the Caspian Tit and Shikra sites. In one week we managed to observe nearly 200 species and had very nice observations of elsewhere rare species like Imperial Eagle on the nest or Marbled Teal close to the sleeping place. We even managed to find an Eastern Rock Nuthatch in Zuvand upland.
Simon making his way toward Caspian Tit
Beautiful place to pitch a tent
Horned Larks can be relatively tame

In the Zuvand area we encountered comparably high densities of Pale Rock Sparrows which occur only sporadically.

Only present in some years: Pale Rock Sparrow
Herding is often done in Suits
After Simon had left I had only a couple of days left which I used to try to confirm some previous breeding suspects and map some more agricultural areas which I had not done before in June.

Turtle Dove: In Azerbaijan still a common bird

In total I saw 250 species over the three month of my fieldwork and found several new breeding sites for species of conservation concern which makes the time a full success and proves once more that Azerbaijan is still hiding some nice secrets!