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

Samstag, 30. Dezember 2017

First record of White-rumped Sandpiper for Azerbaijan

Text & Photo © Christoph Himmel

On 17 August 2017 I discovered an odd looking sandpiper during a wader study in Gyzylagach. I photographed the bird, but it flushed while approaching to get a better view. Bad luck, but at least I had some record shots.
The first feature which made this bird so interesting, were the wings extending well beyond tail and the striking supercilium, so this would fit a White-rumped Sandpiper. But after checking the pics no flank streaking and no yellowish lower mandible base was visible, so at this time it was not certainly identified.
I showed the pictures to several people, but didn’t receive a certain identification, so postponed any activities concerning the bird ID after finishing my survey. At the beginning of December I posted the pictures in the “I <3 Shorebirds” group on Facebook and received a fast and clear ID, White-rumped Sandpiper, which supports my first intention.

I want to thank Rick and Elis Simpson, Dave Bakewell and Andrew Baksh for helping me with the ID.

Dienstag, 12. Dezember 2017

Autumn migration at Besh Barmag - a summary

Text © Kai Gauger

From October 22nd to November 20th teams of birders have been around Besh Barmag for countinously counting of the daily visual migration. Before this period there have only been incomplete countings for a few hours per day or random observations by Pia Fetting's ringing team.

Migrating Calandra Larks with Besh Barmag in the background © Michael Heiß

When Hans and Simon Olk from the Netherlands arrived at Besh they started with a good day and about 96.000 birds, mainly Starlings but also 5.000 Black-headed Gulls, 500 Stock Doves, 5 late Black-winged Pratincoles, two Rustic Buntings and 3 Siberian Buff-bellied Pipits of which many more should follow during the next weeks. End of October then provided a great variety of all kinds of songbirds (mainly pipits, larks, and finches), many different raptor species (including the first Saker of the season) regular flocks of Little Bustards, and also good passage of waterbirds with eg 34 Lesser White-fronted Geese on October 28th, the first flocks of Pygmy Cormorants, hundreds of herons and flocks of both, Great White and Dalmatian Pelicans.

Counters in the first morning light © Michael Heiß
A Buff-bellied Pipit (right) together with a Meadow Pipit (left) © Michael Heiß
Official logo of the Besh Barmag Bird Migration Count © Michael Heiß
Exhausted counters enjoying the dinner © Michael Heiß
 A big day was October 30th with a total of more than 216.000 birds counted. Among them was a Black-throated Thrush passing by early morning. Extraordinary were the numbers of larks with 66.000 Calandras, 34.000 Skylarks, and another 22.000 lark sp. Also 198 Hen Harriers is quite an impressive number. A nice gimmick was a Desert Wheatear on the beach. Another 27.500  Calandras passed the next day and migration continued to be good early November with daily records of Buff-bellied Pipits, good numbers and the first White-winged larks appearing. Up to 3 Desert Wheaters were resting at the beach and a Daurian Shrike gave great views in the bushes.

Group photo © Michael Heiß

Daurian Shrike © Christoph Himmel

Dalmatian Pelican migrating overhead © Michael Heiß

Dalmatian Pelicans © Kai Gauger

Nov 5th-7th were amazing with again some good numbers and a much better quality of species. 7.000 Pygmy Cormorants, 19.000 Black-headed Gulls and thousands of ducks passed by together with an amazing 10 Rough-legged Buzzard, a species hardy recorded in Azerbaijan before and not on the national list a few years ago. A few Black-bellied Sandgrouses were around, a superb Saker lingered in the area, and a resting flock of 70 White-winged Larks was the first indication that there might be many more to come. So it happened and there were flocks every day summarising to nearly 700 individuals. Very unexpected and really impressive! Another true highligt was an Oriental Turtle Dove passing close by but also a day maximum of 20 Short-eared Owls is worth to mention.

A flock of White-winged Larks © Kai Gauger

Imperial Eagle and Black Vulture, both seen daily at the spot © Kai Gauger

also Steppe Eagle were around in small numbers © Kai Gauger
The next days the migration was rather slow with many birds going north again but at least there was a Richard's Pipits, more White-winged Larks, a Rustic Bunting, each a Red-throated and Black-throated Diver (both rarely recorded on the Caspian). This gave us the chance to have some short excursions to the surroundings with each part of the team. In the rocks of Besh Barmag there was a beautiful Wallcreeper together with a Blue Rock Thrush, an Alpine Accentor, a large flock of Caucasian Twites and the usual Western Rock Nuthatches and Rock Sparrows. In the colourful Candy Cane Mountains on the way to Xizi Finch's Wheaters held their territories and also some Little Owls and Chukars were observed.

Richard's Pipits at the counting post © Pieter Cox
Caucasian Twites around Besh Barmag Mountain © Kai Gauger
the stunning Wallcreeper at Besh Barmag © Demetris Bertzeletos

From November 11th on the activity was picking up again with lots of finches, many more White-winged Larks, 3 more Richard's pipits, but also still 30 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. An unmistakable sign that it hadn't been very cold north until then. Unexpected was a 1cy Kittiwake representing just the third record for Azerbaijan but three more should follow during the next week.

On November 14th there was hardly any migration in the morning and we had an spontaneous excursion to Shirvan NP which was absolutely worth it! Just after arriving and a picnic at the entrance there were 5 Steppe Eagles, a very late Lesser Kestrel, and a bit further on the way several Black Francolins. A few hours around the lake produced all three species of swans, both pelican species, 60 flamingos, about 350 White-fronted Geese, a few thousand ducks including 47 Marbled Teals, two Great Bittern, two Purple Swamphens and a lot more. In the surrounding steppe there were a flock of 100 White-winged Larks and about 450 Little Bustards.

typical loose flock of Pygmy Cormorants © Kai Gauger
Black-bellied Sandgrouse resting next to the counting post © Kai Gauger

The last days at Besh Barmag were mainly dominated by waterbird migration. On November 17th and 18th 6.600 Pygmy Cormorants, 36.800 Cormorants, 13.000 ducks, plenty of geese, swans and 1.100 Great White Egrets passed by. Also Great Black-headed Gulls became more regular when there were the first nights of frost in the Wolga delta further north.

Unfortunately, due to this rather warm weather until then we didn't experiance the impressive migration of  Little Bustards as we hoped for and seen in 2011 ( But all in all it was a great time at Besh Barmag with amazing numbers (see, a superb species composition and a perfect team. Thanks to everybody who joined and supported us!

Hope to see you again at "Besh Barmag Bird Migration Count" in autumn 2018!!!

The traditional final dinner in a traditional Azeri restaurant © Michael Heiß

Montag, 11. Dezember 2017

Nocturnal bird migration at Besh Barmag

The journal Bird Conservation International has just published a paper about the nocturnal bird migration at Besh Barmag​.

Bird migration studies are sparse in the Caucasus region, but have received more interest in recent years. To date, these studies have focused on diurnal migration and no information about nocturnal bird migration is available from this region. Therefore, nocturnal bird migration in the Besh Barmag bottleneck (Azerbaijan) was acoustically analysed on the basis of 1,464 h 44 min of sound recordings cost-efficiently obtained with an autonomously operating recorder and an omnidirectional microphone between sunset and sunrise on 63 nights in autumn 2011 and 67 nights in spring 2012. In total, 88,455 calls of 106 migrating species were detected. Of these, 2,172 calls could not be identified due to recording deficiencies or imperfect familiarity with some of the vocalisations and may involve as many as 20 species. The calls and songs of another 13 non-migratory species were not counted. Due to organisational or technical constraints some nights in the study periods could not be analysed and so the ensuing data gaps were repaired by interpolation, resulting in an estimated total of 108,986 calls in autumn 2011 and 33,348 calls in spring 2012. In both seasons the most vocally productive and species-rich phase was civil morning twilight, containing as it does the onset of diurnal migration. In autumn 2011, 54.7% of the recorded calls occurred in civil evening and morning twilight and 68.8% in spring 2012. But species and call numbers were also high in the darkest twilight and night phases. The interpretation of the data is, however, partly conjectural and any future access to truly reliable information on migration densities is conceivable only through radar studies.

The supplementary materials are online free available.

Find the paper here:

Dienstag, 5. Dezember 2017

Birding tour in spring 2018

For spring 2018, Batumi Birding offers a birdwatching trip to Azerbaijan. The travel route will cover all main landscape types from the Greater to the Lesser Caucasus, from coastal wetlands to dry steppes in order to cover the large diversity of bird species including all Caucasian specialities.
These beautiful Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were photographed in Shirvan National Park on a previous trip by the tour guide Michael Heiß.

The profit of this trip goes to conservation projects in the Caucasus region.

Please find the itinerary here:

Donnerstag, 2. November 2017

Wings Across the Caspian: Bird Migration in Azerbaijan

The Baku Magazine recently published an article on the Bird Camp Besh Barmag, which took place in April 2017.

Read the whole article here:

Montag, 16. Oktober 2017

The first Little Buntings for Azerbaijan and other nice eastern species at Besh Barmag

Text © Pia Fetting

Little Bunting (juvenile) © Pia Fetting

In the first half of October rain and a low cloud cover brought some real ornithological goodies to the study site!

  • The second Yellow-browed Warbler for Azerbaijan was heard calling on 12th of October close to one of our nets, unfortunately without any records.
  • The first documented record of Little Bunting for Azerbaijan: One juvenile was trapped on 13th of October! Later that day even two birds were calling close to the camp site. One was also observed on 14th October.
Despite it is difficult to count the migrating birds during our bird ringing, we try our very best to count at least the more attractive species. At the moment migrating Little Bustards are a regular sight. So far 5519 individuals headed south with a peak of 4398 birds on 12th of October (check: More will surely come within the next weeks.

Flock of migrating Little Bustards © Jonas Buddemeier

Samstag, 14. Oktober 2017

September at Besh Barmag – Much heat, less birds

Text & Photos  © Pia Fetting

Volunteer Esther releasing a Wryneck
After some stormy and colder days in the beginning of September, temperatures rose again and it was once more like midsummer; still very hot (30+°C) and very dry. After more than three month without rain in this region, all ponds and lagoons were empty.
Additionally, strong winds almost every day resulted in low activity of resting birds and thus often empty mist-nets. Furthermore, kettle, dogs and other animals around posed a threat to the nets.

Trying to fix by cows destroyed nets
Excursion in the surroundings
Seawatching at the Caspian Sea
 Bonfire in the evenings
Together with the arriving volunteers I caught well over 500 birds in September. Sylvia warblers were still very common, but more and more autumn species like Common Redstarts, Common Rosefinches and Red-breasted Flycatchers mixed with them. In particular, we were glad about catching each one male Siberian Stonechat ssp. maurus and variegatus at the same day.

Though common around, still impressive in hand (f.t.l.t.b.r. Nightjar, Kingfisher, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Hoopoe)
One of the most common species in autumn: Red-breasted Flycatcher (adult male)
Siberian Stonechat ssp. maurus

By the end of the month cloudy and rainy days brought some more birds to the bushes and nets and we also had some more intense migration days with many terns, raptors, herons and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters being noticed while bird ringing ( As the first volunteers already had to leave and new people were coming, we met with some people of NatureFriends Azerbaijan in a traditional restaurant in Baku and had a nice farewell- and welcome- Dinner.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters on roosting site

Dinner in Baku

Samstag, 7. Oktober 2017

Finish of the wader study at Gyzylagach

Text & Photos © Christoph Himmel

Mixed flock of Kentish-, Ringed Plovers, Collared Pratincole and Little Stints

Now my time in Azerbaijan comes to an end and I prepare to go back to Germany.
Besides my counts during the last weeks, I also examined some specimens at the Zoological Museum of the Institute of Zoology in Baku. I checked the specimens of Whimbrels and Curlews for Steppe Whimbrel, but unfortunately couldn’t find a possible candidate.

Whimbrel specimens of the Zoological Museum in Baku
Examining Little and Temminck Stints in the Zoological Museum

The 11.000 counted waders mentioned in a previous blogpost was thought to be extraordinary, but I recently counted nearly 30.000 waders near Gyzylagach State Reserve on a single day. This is really an incredible number for this site, which doubles the numbers of individuals ever counted!
With the last counts at Gyzylagach, the total number of 186.000 resting waders was reached, which may also include double counts.
What a great finish, but, fingers crossed, not a final one. Stay tuned for a possibly extension next year!
A small area of a mudflat with nearly 30.000 waders
A serious-looking Broad-billed Sandpiper
Part of a flock of more than 1.500 Dunlins The numbers of Dunlins constantly increased during the last two weeks of September