“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.
|Dalmatian and White Pelican|