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

Donnerstag, 20. Dezember 2018

Late November highlights at the Besh Barmag migration bottleneck

text by Ric Else and Hazel Watson

Before joining the Besh Barmag counting team from mid November to the end of the month, we weren't really sure what to expect at such a late stage in the migration season. We had been closely following the daily count data on Trektellen from the beginning of September, seeing the vast numbers and incredible diversity of birds being recorded each day, and we couldn't help wondering: how long could this go on? Would there still be any birds left to count by mid November?

We need not have worried this time of year turned out to be just as varied and interesting as the preceding weeks had been. Every day was different, and almost every day provided something remarkable. There were far too many memorable migration moments to mention them all, but for this blog post we've picked out a few particularly unforgettable birding experiences from our three weeks at the bottleneck.

We see plenty of Great Cormorants back home in the UK, and admittedly don't often pay them much attention, but the immensely long, snaky, tangled flocks that we watched straggling past Besh Barmag gave us a whole new appreciation for this familiar species! The best day was 17th November when 19,066 Great Cormorants were counted heading south, including several amazing four-figure flocks that seemed to stretch for miles along the horizon.

A messy jumble of Great Cormorants over the hilltops (Hazel Watson)
A small group of Great Cormorants migrating with three Mallards (Ric Else)

Pygmy Cormorants, on the other hand, we never see at home, and the great flocks of them migrating past were a completely new experience for us. A count of 6,754 on 19th November was our biggest Pygmy day, but counts reached the thousands on several other dates too. Migrating high above the bottleneck in diffuse, silent flocks, even a hundred-strong group of Pygmy Cormorants can be surprisingly hard to detect within the three-dimensional emptiness of the sky, and it was essential to continuously scan overhead to avoid missing them.

A relatively close flock of Pygmy Cormorants (Ric Else)

Marsh Harriers
Coming so late in the season, it hadn't occurred to us that we might be in for record-smashing numbers of Marsh Harriers. From 19th to 27th November, counts of migrating Marsh Harriers were in triple figures every day, but it was the 24th in particular that things got really crazy. From very first light, multiple streams and kettles of Marsh Harriers were on the move high overhead, and within an hour about 1,000 had already been logged. Although the pace slowed considerably after mid morning, the birds still kept on coming and by evening an unprecedented total of 1,394 had passed through the bottleneck.

With Marsh Harriers cruising past us all day long, we had plenty of opportunity to get to grips with their full range of plumages, including some of the exciting dark morph birds that we never see in Western Europe.

Dark morph Marsh Harrier (Ric Else)

Other raptors
The count station at Besh Barmag provided us with some superb raptor action almost every day. As well as the multitudes of migrating Marsh Harriers, we were lucky enough to see several southbound Rough-legged Buzzards, as well as a late Steppe Eagle and a couple of late Pallid Harriers. Even when there was little actual migration going on, Hen Harriers hunted nearby, Eastern Imperial Eagles circled overhead, and Merlins were often pursuing passerines across the nearby fields. A couple of the Merlins we saw were highly distinctive, stunningly pale birds, presumably of the pallidus 'Steppe Merlin' race.

A colony of lively jirds living around the counting spot proved attractive to a local Long-legged Buzzard, which often hung around nearby in the hope of ambushing one of these rodents.
White-tailed Eagles were seen most days, and scanning the tops of the nearby foothills regularly produced Black Vultures, Griffon Vultures and Golden Eagles.

Raptors of the Besh Barmag counting spot. Clockwise from top left: White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Steppe Eagle, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Black Vulture, incoming Long-legged Buzzard (Ric Else)
Long-legged Buzzard looking for jirds (Ric Else)

Migrating Greater Flamingos
Well, who wouldn't love the slightly surreal sight of migrating flocks of flamingos? A count of 339 on 13th November was topped by 441 the next day, including a single flock of 160 birds making their slow, meandering and flamboyantly pink journey south over the waves. A ridiculous and unforgettable sight!

Flamingo migration (Hazel Watson)

Little Bustards
In November, if there was one thing that all the birders at Besh Barmag were fervently hoping for, it was a sensational, sky-filling mass migration of Little Bustards. We all knew about THAT day in 2011, and were eagerly anticipating a repeat performance. Sadly, as it turned out, the big bustard bonanza never really happened in 2018. Perhaps the weather conditions north of Besh Barmag were not quite right to force the birds south, or maybe they took another route this year. Who can tell?

But we did at least get to witness one very good day for Little Bustards. On 24th November (the same day as the Marsh Harrier mayhem), the team counted 8,413 bustards migrating through the bottleneck, including spectacular flocks of up to 1,320 birds. It wasn't quite on the scale of the migration seven years ago, but it was still a beautiful and unforgettable event and it gave us a taste of what that legendary day in 2011 must have been like.

Big bustard flock high overhead (Ric Else)
A few slightly closer bustards (Ric Else)

Red-breasted Goose
As if over 8,000 Little Bustards and nearly 1,400 Marsh Harriers was not enough excitement for one day, 24th November had another highlight in store for the afternoon. A very distant skein of 21 geese was picked up high above the foothills, and it was immediately noticed that four of them looked remarkably small. All eyes were fixed on this flock as they gradually came closer and closer, and eventually got close enough for there to be no doubt at all there really were four Red-breasted Geese migrating in a flock of Greylag and White-fronted Geese! This was a new species for Besh Barmag, and everyone had good scope views as they came directly (albeit extremely high!) overhead.

Two of the Red-breasted Geese, and a Greylag Goose (Hazel Watson)

White-winged Lark
Some quite amazing days for White-winged Lark had been recorded in November the previous year, including some days with over a hundred counted. They proved much harder to come by this year, but we were still pleased to see small numbers on several days. We got very good flight views and heard the distinctive migration calls on a few occasions, but by far the best views were on 30th November our very last day at the count when a White-winged Lark dropped into a nearby field and we finally enjoyed excellent scope views of it running around on the ground with a flock of Skylarks. It was a very nice way to end our stay at the count.

Long-tailed Rosefinch
This was a big surprise on 22nd November. It was a relatively quiet day at the counting spot, until Kai and Gunay discovered this first for Azerbaijan in the nearby scrubland. Obligingly, it remained in the same area long enough for all the counters that day to enjoy excellent views, and even hung around for the next couple of days. While we were happily twitching the rosefinch, a stunning mixed flock of 280 Great Egrets and 19 Bewick's Swans migrated right overhead, reminding us that there was still migration happening and that we ought to get back to work at the counting spot!

Long-tailed Rosefinch (Ric Else)

Throughout our stay at Besh Barmag, the slightest hint of an easterly wind direction invariably meant one thing: ducks! Ducks by the thousands, and ducks all day long flock after flock streaming south over the sea. A particularly intense five-day period of southeast winds from 13th to 17th November produced a total count of 112,998 ducks migrating south.

Duck flocks frequently contained over 100 birds, usually of multiple species mingled together, and they mostly passed by quite distantly and very rapidly. At times, this was frantically high-speed anatidae ID! But what a fantastic learning experience, repeatedly picking out and counting how many of each species were in each group as quickly as possible, ready to move immediately onto the next incoming flock.

Mallards, Gadwalls, Pintails, Shovelers, Wigeons, Teal and Pochards all passed by in their thousands, and among such crazy quantity of common quackers there were also good numbers of some less familiar ducks. It was exciting to see mass migration of species that we don't get back home in the UK, such as the 549 Ruddy Shelducks on 14th November and 411 Red-crested Pochards on 20th November. And, scanning closely through each and every flock, we were occasionally rewarded with something a bit rarer most outrageously a Common Scoter (the first live record for Azerbaijan!) trying to sneak past us amid a flock of 50 Pochards!

In our three weeks, an astounding 21 species of duck were recorded on migration, not to mention three species of swan, four species of goose, four species of grebe and a few Black-throated Divers. It really was a sensational time for waterfowl.

Red-crested Pochards, Gadwalls and Mallards flocking together (Hazel Watson)
Pintails and Wigeons migrating over the Caspian Sea (Hazel Watson)
Mallards, Pintails and Wigeons directly overhead (Ric Else)

Many thanks to the coordinators and organisers for all their great work arranging and running a successful project. There must still be so much to discover at this phenomenal migration bottleneck and we can't wait to learn what amazing migration events are recorded here in future years.

Sonntag, 18. November 2018

Late October / early November impressions by Michael Hoit

Text © Michael Hoit

Bird counters at the spot © Michael Heiß

Avian migration is a truly amazing natural phenomenon. The mass long-distance movement of birds across the world is quite familiar to most, but is still somehow underappreciated and taken for granted by many. To some of us, at least, it is inherently exciting and endlessly fascinating – both in scale, and in how individual species manage the feat. There are just a handful of places where observers can witness migration on a huge scale, and recently I was fortunate to visit one of them.

Many such places have been subject to long-term study (such as Cape May, in the USA), while others still very much have a frontier feel. Besh Barmag is definitely in the latter category; despite several years of visits by diligent ornithologists, it still feels like the possibilities are almost unlimited. At least in part, this is down to location – being at the intersection of Europe and Asia, this opens up a huge number of potential species that will capture the imagination of most birders from further west in the continent! Like all great migration watchpoints, what makes the site special is the geography of the area; the eastern end of the Caucasus mountain range juts across the flat coastal plain of the Caspian Sea, funnelling birds into a ‘bottleneck’. Anything not wanting to ascend over the hills of cross the sea will, with luck, pour past the count site at this narrow spot, especially in certain weather conditions.

The bottleneck area as seen from Mount Besh Barmag © Michael Hoit
Backside of Mount Besh Barmag © Björn Malmhagen
Counters, tourists and the shelter © Michael Heiß

All that dry theory is well and good, but it doesn’t really convey the excitement of being in this unique spot. At least part of that is because of the sheer unpredictability of migration. Trying to make an informed guess at what birds the day ahead holds is something that all birders do, even if we mostly get it wrong. At Besh Barmag, it proved almost impossible – not that it stopped us! For example, one of the more exciting days was on 1st November (counts here), when ducks and geese flooded past all day, and nearly 12,000 Skylarks arrived from the sea and covered the fields, feeding while still soaked. The following week, with similar miserable weather conditions, the counters were primed for a repeat, and what did we get? A fairly quiet sea, and over 200 Marsh Harriers in the first couple of hours! Ultimately it was another spectacular day, as large waterbirds staged an appearance en masse from early afternoon (6th November). Swans, geese and Great Egrets passed just overhead, and I was ‘lucky’ enough to be counting Great Cormorants as 10,000 flew by in a couple of hours (and my thumb is still recovering). Whatever the weather forecast, we never knew what was in store, which is a good motivation for the early starts!

Good start into the day - heron migration at its best © Michael Heiß
30 minutes later came another massive flock © Michael Heiß
Great White Egrets with Spoonbill © Michael Heiß
Great White Egret with Little Egret © Michael Heiß
Flock of Little Bustard © Sébastien Roques
Almost daily sights of this beautiful species © Michael Heiß
With sometimes really close views © Simon Carrington
Two Rooks and one Greater Flamingo © Michael Heiß
Probably the same 8 adult Bewick's Swans were seen by a German birding group near Khinaliq in the Greater Caucasus above 3000m asl before they arrived about 30 minutes later at the couting station. How cool is that! © Sébastien Roques

Over eighteen days of migration counts, the highlights of my trip are too many to mention. From a personal perspective, few individual sightings stand out. On my first full day, we were treated to a flypast by a stunning tawny-coloured female ‘Steppe’ Merlin, a taxon I’ve missed on previous trips (we saw at least one more of these smart birds); picking out my first White-winged Lark from a migrating flock of Calandras was incredibly satisfying and a memory that’s going to last. And I don’t think anyone present on 30th October will forget the moment late in the morning when ‘big bustard!’ was called flying in from the sea – as it turned south, it became clear it was a stunning male MacQueen’s Bustard, which landed close to the watchpoint. Probably the most unexpected sighting of the 2018 season… However, the main draw of Besh Barmag are the big days, massive counts of species (such as the wildfowl above). 5th November was a good one – after impressive numbers of corvids and starlings, we suddenly were in the middle of a surprise movement of Bramblings, with over 5,700 flying north late morning ( On a number of days, a big flock of pelicans – mostly Dalmatian, but a few Great Whites – appeared, while any incoming large flock of Little Bustards guaranteed excitement. My first taste of bustard migration came on the morning of 28th October, which was also notable for awesome flocks of ardeidae – and not just by day. A fixture of the days at Besh Barmag were remaining until darkness, awaiting the spectacle of heron migration; a remarkable number of Great Bitterns can often rise from the bushes, call as they circle into the dusk sky, and head south. Waiting and squinting into the half-light was soon christened “staying until the Bittern end”… 

Incrediable atmosphere with counters coming from Sweden, Estonia, France, Germany, England and Azerbaijan © Michael Heiß
A Black-bellied Sandgrouse bumped into the counting team © Christoph Himmel
Occaisonally 30-40 birdwatchers were at the counting station © Michael Heiß
A "big bustard"... © Simon Carrington
A MacQueen's Bustard just landed south of the counting station. Well seen by the lucky counters © Michael Heiß
...but was flushed by some cows later © Michael Heiß
Buff-bellied Pipits occur in small numbers at Besh Barmag © Björn Malmhagen
Pine Bunting is another of the 'eastern goodies' © Björn Malmhagen
...also Pallas's Gull © Simon Carrington
Dalmatian and White Pelican © Michael Hoit
The same pelican flock © Michael Heiß
Chris and Micha at dusk © Michael Hoit
Counters waiting for the "Bittern end" © Michael Heiß
Who will find the first bittern of the evening? © Michael Heiß
Two Great Bittern close-by © Michael Heiß
Flock of seven Great Bittern © Michael Heiß

In total, almost 900,000 birds of nearly 160 species were counted passing during my stay; during this period, we passed the two million bird milestone for the season, and no. 3,000,000 can’t be far off. These numbers and the above diversity must qualify Besh as the best VisMig (visible migration) site in the Western Palearctic region. This isn’t just for fun either. The project is contributing to the count data along a migration flyway which until recently had been neglected – the chance of new discoveries combined with proper science!

With Full French Force: Anthony, Sébastien, Gaby © Michael Heiß
Helpful Gunay © Björn Malmhagen
Busy Gunay © Michael Heiß
We love bird migration © Michael Heiß
Thousands of Great Cormorants were counted © Michael Heiß
Another flock of Great Cormorant © Michael Heiß
Who is counting Starlings? © Michael Heiß
Often the sky was filled with Starlings and Gunay busy again © Michael Heiß
Common Starling was the most abundant species © Michael Heiß
Migrating birds in all directions © Michael Heiß
Often you hear just clicking sounds from the counters © Michael Heiß
Calandra Larks were common as well © Michael Heiß
Often mixed with Skylarks © Björn Malmhagen
This exhausted Skylark reached the beach after it probably crossed the Caspian Sea © Christoph Himmel
Two Merlins fighting for a preyed lark © Michael Heiß
Another Merlin feeding on a lark © Michael Heiß
In case the afternoon migration is too slow for you, feel free to play with alien critters © Michael Hoit
Or try to find a Jungle Cat © Sébastien Roques

One of my favourite aspects of participating in a count like this is the chance to hone knowledge and skills. Even the most experienced birders cannot fail to learn something - assuming, of course, you approach things with an open mind, and pay attention to your count colleagues! There’s a constant chat regarding identification, ageing and how best to record birds, and a wealth of information being shared. I didn’t know, for example, of the diagnostic difference in flock structure between Great and Pygmy Cormorants: we’re all familiar with the Vs and straggling lines of the former, but the ‘loose’, chaotic and Rook-like look of groups of the latter was new to me! This is what you get from a multi-national, knowledgeable team of migration counters. Many were previous graduates of the (for now) more well-known Batumi Raptor count, and some of us had surveyed together in the past, but the differences are quite marked. At Batumi, the count protocol is quite rigid, do deal with the various streams of birds of prey; here, the methods are a little more freeform: the huge diversity of species to count and, as previously mentioned, the unpredictability of each day, make this a necessity.  Which of these two locations is better? This sort of thing will always be down to personal preference, and some might suggest the range of different species and types of migration (raptors, VisMig, seawatching...) edges Besh ahead – although I couldn’t possibly comment…

Rook-like look of Pygmy Cormorant flock © Michael Heiß
Great Cormorants migrate mainly in V-shape © Michael Heiß
Male Hen Harrier © Björn Malmhagen
"Fifth" our daily Imperial Eagle © Michael Heiß
Ruddy Shelduck © Michael Heiß
Gaby counting the Black-headed Gulls © Michael Heiß
One of the common species - Rook © Michael Heiß

There are so many other things that I could ramble on about – Azerbaijan is such a fascinating and welcoming place. Daytrips to the remarkable natural features (mud volcanoes!), the rock art, the abundant wildlife (the on-site jirds deserve a blog of their own…) are all worth mentioning, but ultimately, Besh Barmag is about the birds. If you’re willing to put in the long hours of concentration and contribute to a team effort, the rewards of immersing yourself in the migration spectacle are tremendous, an experience not to be missed!

The final word must go to the people who really make the visit what it is. The brilliant count team were such a pleasure to spend time with (and we spent a lot of time together), and were so easy to get along with. Special thanks, though must go to Micha, Chris and Kai for their hard work as coordinators and commitment to getting count data – I’m not entirely sure when they slept; Gunay for entering record after record into the tablet, often with several people trying to get her attention simultaneously and talking too fast (mainly me); Rovshan for his endless logistics work; and last, but definitely not least, Miryusif for the non-stop delicious food (I definitely don’t know when he sleeps). Between you guys, the only thing I had to think about was which of the delicious selection of jams was going onto my lavash. Hopefully, I’ll see you all again soon!

Well deserved after a full day count © Michael Heiß
Miryusif magic in the evening © Michael Heiß
Besh Barmag with a flock of Great Cormorants © Björn Malmhagen
Morning surprise - three wolves close to the counting station © Michael Heiß
Dutch and Swedish visitors © Michael Heiß
Weather conditions can be unpleasent © Michael Heiß
Gathering around the shelter © Michael Heiß
Good to have protection from wind and rain © Michael Heiß
Cosy day in the shelter. Everybody is happy © Michael Heiß
The good read © Michael Heiß
The counting station is directly in a colony of happy jirds © Michael Heiß
Always entertaining company, espcially when you are not interested in birds © Michael Heiß
Busy beasties © Michael Heiß
Never tired © Michael Heiß
Count coordinator's perspective. Thanks again Miryusif © Michael Heiß