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A Report from

Short trip report from Istanbul, Turkey, 16th to 19th September 2009,

Ben A Miller

Istanbul is justifiably famous as a place to watch migrating raptors, especially in autumn. I was, therefore, very fortunate to find a conference I needed to attend was being held in the city in September.

The following day-by-day notes might help any other birders visiting the city on business get a sense of what could be seen – though clearly being here at peak migration season is helpful!

One thing I did notice was the number of American tourists in the city; I’ll therefore mention all species seen, including common ones, as these may be of interest to someone stumbling upon this report.

Finally, thanks to Jurij Hanžel, and to “MichaelF” on Surfbird Forums, for gen in advance.

Day 1 – Wednesday 16th September

First birds from the plane window as I flew in were ubiquitous Yellow-legged Gulls, quickly followed as we taxied in by a handful of Hooded Crows (also very common around the city) and a flock of 40 Jackdaw. A Great Cormorant flew over as the taxi headed in to the city, as did my first Alpine Swifts of the trip. Alpine Swift became my avian symbol of the city; loud, bubbling flocks are a very common sight overhead, especially early in the morning and late afternoon/evening.

I stayed in Harbiye, across the Golden Horn and just north of Taksim Square. It had some small grounds, so I headed out late afternoon to explore, and was delighted when the first passerine I heard was a Red-breasted Flycatcher! It turned out to be a ‘flock’ of three birds, including one splendid adult male, complete with red breast. The only other new birds I clocked were Great Tits, fly-over Starlings and Feral Pigeons, plus a neat Hummingbird Hawk-Moth was around the flowers at the hotel entrance.

Day 2 – Thursday 17th September

After Jurij’s success with Syrian Woodpecker in the park surrounding the Topkapi Palace (“Gülhane Park” on my map) I decided to start the day here. This is a work trip for me, but a good old fashioned birder’s early start and a cheating taxi ride later and I was at the park not long after sunrise, to get a couple of hours birding in. Driving into the heart of the old city, Laughing Doves were frequently seen on the road, as were flocks of House Sparrows.

As I waited for the sun to get passerine activity going, I checked out the Bosphorus from Saraburnu Park, just south of the Atatürk Monument and across the road from the northern entrance to the Palace. As expected, Yelkouan Shearwaters were easily found, heading north along the Bosphorus in groups of 30+ birds. Unfortunately this was not the opportunity I was hoping for to re-familiarise myself with this species in detail; the birds were all distant, in the middle of the Straight. Lots of Yellow-legged and a Black-headed Gull were also seen, though a surprise were 2 Little Gulls, an adult winter and a juv-1st winter, dip-feeding along the shore line.

I then headed into Gülhane/Topkapi Park. it does lack a scrub layer which would make for good migrant hunting; however, early in the morning it was quiet, and a look at a map is enough to get you quite excited at the potential!

Along the western side of the park parakeets were very much in evidence, with very vocal Ring-necked (Rose-ringed) reminding me of home (!), and harsh squawking Alexandrines reminding me of India… Is this the only site for established Alexandrine Parakeets in Europe?

In the same area a vocal juv Hobby showed well as it was given a hard time by the Hooded Crows, and I saw my first Magpies of the trip.

There was little passerine activity, just a good number of Great Tits, a few Blue Tits, and a Robin to remind me that not everything here that ‘ticks’ and has a red breast is an RB Fly! This was until I returned to the northern end of the park beyond the walls of the inner courts of the palace, where things hotted up.

A movement high in the canopy was a phyllosc, and I couldn’t believe my luck when I eventually nailed it as a fabulous Green Warbler!! I was aware this species is sometimes seen in Istanbul on passage, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to get this lucky. It struck to true Greenish-group form and remained in the top of the canopy, totally ignoring my manic pishing – though this did pull in a smart male Blackcap, and some strange looks…

Moving up towards the café that over looks the Bosphorus I found more migrants; a 1st-winter Spotted Flycatcher and 2 Hoopoes, the latter feeding with the Hooded Crows on the lawn. I then heard the call I’d been waiting for, which led me to not one but a fantastic pair of Syrian Woodpeckers. These birds showed really well, allowing me to fully take in this life bird for me (the only one that was realistically possible on this trip).

By now it was approaching 9am, so I had to jump on the efficient tram to wiz past the now stationary traffic and back to my hotel to start work. Gülhane/Topkapi Park may turn out to be an easy site for visiting birders to see Syrian Woodpecker (& Alexandrine Parakeet, if that’s your thing), plus hold a few migrants. I’m sure that many visiting birders will take at last a quick look at the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque or any of the other Byzantine and Ottoman buildings in Sultanahmet, so this site is very accessible and can be tied in. The Northern gate at least was open early morning so access isn’t a problem, plus it was quiet and very safe for a city-centre park; the military guards sees to that!

I’d expected that to be the end of my birding for the day, however at 1pm I returned briefly to my room, and thought I’d have a quick scan from the balcony before getting back to work – and the skies were full of raptors! I’ve never been so frustrated to have to earn my keep! I had time for one ‘scope scan, which produced 1 Lesser Spotted Eagle, 6 Short-toed Eagles, 2 ’Steppe’ Buzzards and a kettle of 98 Levant Sparrowhawks!

Day 3 – Friday 18th September

As expected, a day spent driving round Istanbul and points west for meetings provided few birding opportunities. Some confiding Jackdaws at one stop showed them to be of the distinctive ‘silvery necked’ ‘eastern’ form, whist another highlight was a flock of c.40 Little Gulls close in-shore as we drove alongside the Sea of Marmara at one point.

Whilst driving along the E80 back towards Istanbul, just beyond the town of Bahşayiş, we crossed a very large lake heading north of the road. I asked my driver to see if we could get to the shore, but this proved frustrating as neither of us knew where we were going, and no obvious route could be found. We eventually got close enough for me the scan, but the lake was just too distant to check properly.

I could see the following; large number of duck, all identifiable being Mallard, 50+ Great Crested Grebes, good numbers of Coot and 30 Grey Herons. 2 Marsh Harriers were overhead, but most frustrating was a large eagle, either Lesser or Greater Spotted Eagle, but was just too far away in poor light to be able to clinch to species. Frustrating indeed! 3 Red-backed Shrikes, 1 Spotted Flycatcher, hirundines including Sand Martin & Swallows, and a Common Kestrel were also seen during this brief excursion…

Day 4 – Saturday 19th September

With a full morning at my disposal before needing to leave the city to catch my flight home, I decided to head for the famous raptor watch point of Büyük Çamlica, across the Bosphorus in the Asian side of the city. Büyük Çamlica is the highest hill in the city, not far from the Straight, and is clearly visible all around; it’s the hill with all the large radio masts and with the huge Turkish flag flying from the top!

As it is well vegetated, I figured it would be a good site to try to find some migrant passerines, so I took a taxi from my hotel, arriving not long after sunrise. It took less than 20 minutes, and I was on-site so didn’t need to be concerned about traffic problems later.

At the summit the noisy local Hobby family were showing really around the masts; five birds. They continued to give excellent views throughout the morning.

There are rouge paths leading off the road as you walk down from the top towards the Balcoon café. Exploring down the slope, amongst the many Great and (fewer) Blue Tits, I found 2 Red-breasted Flycatchers, 2 Sardinian Warblers, 3 Blackcaps, a Lesser Whitethroat and a Willow Warbler. Jays of the distinctive local form were reasonably common, as were Magpies, Hooded Crows and ‘eastern’ Jackdaws, plus another Hummingbird Hawk-Moth were also found.

A vocal, high-pitched male Common Crossbill was a surprise and presumably a migrant; it landed briefly in one of the pines. My first Pallid Swifts of the trip overhead were more expected, whist during the course of the morning over fly-bys or fly-overs seen included 1 Tree Pipit, 3 Grey Wagtails, 5 White Wagtails and 2 Syrian Woodpeckers (which got up out the woods near the Balcoon café and circled; another was heard calling near the raptor watch-point).

Two ‘Steppe’ Buzzards low over at 8am were a surprise, and must have roosted nearby. I picked up a couple of distant Booted Eagles just before 9am, so decided to make my way beyond the cafes to the view point. A group of Danes, being led by Klaus Malling Olsen, were already in place; there were later perhaps 30 birders in total, including BirdWatch Turkey founder Kerem Ali Boyla, Tim Melling and Bucks County Recorder Andy Harding, who lives 20mins up the road from me…

Unfortunately, the combined optimism of the group failed to deliver a good passage. It soon became clear that despite the reasonable weather at our location and a favourable NW wind, this wind was bringing in a broad band of heavy rain toward us, and was sitting over exactly where our birds were meant to be coming from. So, after a very little early passage (2 Eurasian Sparrowhawk, 5 ‘Steppe’ Buzzards and 1 Lesser Spotted Eagles), very few raptors passed. Before 10am a flock of 15 Grey Herons going over included one Purple Heron with them, and we enjoyed a flock of c.30 Baltic Gulls heading south.

A great close male Levant Sparrowhawk was appreciated, but soon people started drifting away to dip at other sites, or go home. I thought it was a good idea to try ‘scoping Yelkouan Shearwaters passing up the Bosphorus (quite easy, surprisingly), then at midday I wondered off to look for passerines in the open woodland SE of the view-point, around the picnic tables. In this area I enjoyed great views of 4 Red-breasted Flycatchers, though a Great Tit doing a pitch-perfect impression of a Chaffinch was the only bird of note.

Walking back out of the woodland, suddenly there were Eagles overhead! During the next 15 minutes we all enjoyed some spectacular views of c.30 Lesser Spotted Eagles (and a further Levant Sparrowhawk) as they passed. Unfortunately, at this point I’d arranged my taxi pick-up to head for the airport and home. So, not classic migration (which didn’t improve after I left; “pretty meagre” said Andy’s text), but I was really fortunate to have had the chance to try on a work trip…

Trip List

Great Crested Grebe

Podiceps cristatus

Yelkouan Shearwater

Puffinus yelkouan

Great Cormorant

Phalacrocorax carbo

Grey Heron

Ardea cinerea

Purple Heron

Ardea purpurea


Anas platyrhynchos

Marsh Harrier

Circus aeruginosus

Levant Sparrowhawk

Accipiter brevipes

Eurasian Sparrowhawk

Accipiter nisus

Steppe Buzzard

Buteo buteo vulpinus

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Aquila pomarina

Booted Eagle

Aquila pennatus

Common Kestrel

Falco tinnunculus


Falco subbuteo

Yellow-legged Gull

Larus michahellis

Baltic Gull

Larus fuscus fuscus

Black-headed Gull

Larus ridibundus

Little Gull

Larus minutus

Feral Pigeon

Columba livia 'feral'

Collared Dove

Streptopelia decaocto

Laughing Dove

Streptopelia senegalensis

Alexandrine Parakeet

Psittacula eupatria

Rose-ringed Parakeet

Psittacula krameri

Alpine Swift

Tachymarptis melba

Pallid Swift

Apus pallidus


Upupa epops

Syrian Woodpecker

Dendrocopos syriacus

Sand Martin

Riparia riparia

Barn Swallow

Hirundo rustica

Tree Pipit

Anthus trivialis

White Wagtail

Motacilla alba

Grey Wagtail

Motacilla cinerea


Erithacus rubecula

Willow Warbler

Phylloscopus trochilus

Green Warbler

Phylloscopus [trochiloides] nitidus


Sylvia atricapilla

Lesser Whitethroat

Sylvia curruca

Sardinian Warbler

Sylvia melanocephala

Spotted Flycatcher

Muscicapa striata

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Ficedula parva

Great Tit

Parus major

Blue Tit

Cyanistes caeruleus

Red-backed Shrike

Lanius collurio


Garrulus glandarius


Pica pica


Corvus monedula

Hooded Crow

Corvus cornix


Sturnus vulgaris

House Sparrow

Passer domesticus

Common Crossbill

Loxia curvirostra


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