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A brief visit to the Van area of Turkey 28th - 31st October 2004.,
Michael Grunwell, an English birder currently living and working in Istanbul.
I visited Van for a 3 night stay with a non-birder work colleague (John). We were very fortunate to meet with a charming and enthusiastic young Belgian couple (Ilan and Nina) on the first afternoon who shared our daytrips to Ishak Pasha and Nemrut Dagi.
The bird watching was mostly casual as I was with non-birders but I did manage some serious birding on the Sunday morning around Van Iskele.
My references were mainly Dave Gosney's Finding Birds in Eastern Turkey and A Birdwatchers' guide to Turkey by Green & Moorhouse.
When I first visited Turkey back in July 1987 we used Roger Lascelles' 1:800,000 map but I have found a modern series of maps produced by the German company Kartographischer Verlag R. Ryborsch. Seven maps cover the whole country in 1:500,000 scale and they have been produced in cooperation with the Turkish Ministry of Defence. In Turkey they retail for around 10 YTL. The one which covers Van is number 6 in the series and is ISBN 3927549185
We flew with Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Van. The domestic terminal at Ataturk airport is modern and the flight was hassle free. The ticket cost YTL (Yeni (New) Turkish Lira) 256 return (from Jan 2005 the currency is losing 6 noughts so all the quotes are in what are currently millions of lira (code TRL = Turkish Lira). This equates to exactly 100 GBP for a return trip involving a two hour flight each way.
I had some problem with booking on THY's website; it took my money but contrary to its message no actual booking was ever made! I contacted Turkish and they were aware of the problem and the money was refunded. As to why a reputable airline would allow their website to continue to take payments for non-existent bookings is beyond me. I was able to make a booking on the phone but I would have to go to the main office in Istanbul city centre to pay for it as you still cannot pay by credit card over the phone.
Eventually I discovered the most hassle-free way to get a ticket and make a booking is to use an official travel agent; they make the booking and print your ticket there and then.
Thursday 28th October 2004
We arrived on time at 10:30 on the daily flight from Istanbul and took a taxi to the Hotel Ilvan where we stayed 3 nights in nice rooms with big beds, TV, phone, western toilets and hot showers all for 20 per night per room.
Took a taxi to Van Castle (about 12 one way) had the place much to ourselves, weather was warm and sunny. Eventually did a short walk onto the nearby marsh. The taxi returned on time to take us back but seemed to charge for the trip back out to collect us; would not recommend you book a return pick-up without clarification of costs.
Friday 29th October (Republic Day)
The previous evening Ilan had negotiated a private hire for a day trip to Dogubayazit for 120. Another taxi driver turned up pleading us to go with him for only 100 so it would appear that 100 should be your target figure for a day hire.
We left after 7, found the only place in Van serving breakfast during Ramazan (the Turkish Ramadam) then travelled to Dogubayazit . On the way there were several security checkpoints and we were asked to show our passports once. The road passes within a few km of the Iranian border at one point so discretion when birding is required.
We were delayed by two separate Republic Day parades, the last one was at the foot of the road up to the Ishak Pashak where we had to wait for what seemed every school pupil in Eastern Turkey to march past plus half an armoured brigade following on. The tanks rumbled past followed by three dustcarts and couple of JCBs! We then got to shake hands with the military top brass before setting off up the hill.
My companions were not that impressed by the inside of the palace but everyone thought the spectacular setting made it well worthwhile.
When you approach the castle you first meet a big car park below the castle with cafés; this is not the castle car park, continue to drive up until you are level with the entrance door, this is the first car park. Do not park here if you are looking for birds, instead continue on downhill then uphill for at least 500m until you find another big car park with a new seating/picnic area; this is the famous second car park which is slightly higher than the palace.
I spent two hours wandering the hillside beyond the second car park. I discovered that the road to the second car park continues on as a roughish track which takes you right up into the hills. If dry I reckon it is driveable with 2-wheel drive and I certainly intend to attempt to drive up next summer.
We left around 2pm and were back in Van for 5pm, another day of glorious weather, sunny and warm.
Saturday 30th October
The weather had changed with showers through the morning becoming more persistent but we did have enough dry interludes so that the day was not too spoilt.
We left Van at 7:30, it takes a good 2 hours to get to Tatvan plus another 20 minutes to get up the hill to the crater. Leaving Tatvan centre drive north, there is a fork at a petrol station, this not the main junction north of Tatvan, fork left not right. After about 2km of dual carriageway you get to a new looking junction, the road to Nemrut is signed on a brown sign saying "Nemrut 13km". We struggled to find this as things have changed since Gosney's visit.
The turn to Nemrut is very close to the main junction north of Tatvan. Because of the road layout you may have to turn right then u-turn west to reach the turnoff as it just where there is a concrete central partition. There is a garage about 500m further west and another modern one about 3km to the east. I am not sure how the Gosney info relates to the current position.
Follow the metalled road all the way up, you pass through one village but there is only one metalled road all the way to the crater lip.
We got out at the crater lip and it was somewhat chilly at that altitude (about 8,000 feet) but perhaps not that cold given we were nearly in November!
The road has obviously been upgraded recently as it is very driveable with a partly sealed surface beyond the rim. After about 600m you get to a fork, we first took the poorer left fork, but were forced to turn round after the road became too rough for our driver to risk his car. We then took the better road (crudely signed "Nemrut") which takes you past a shallow lake and eventually to a fork. The right fork is a short 150m rough road up to a parking area where there are some small dry holes giving out occasional puffs of hot humid air. It is worth coming here for the view of both the big blue lake and the small green lake below you.
The left fork continues round the back of the green lake (where there is a small untidy structure marking a camping area) and after another km eventually ends in a jumble of tracks and shacks at the edge of the main lake.
I have a rough sketch of the tracks in the crater below.
After 30 minutes of chasing birds in this area we returned back to Tatvan and Van getting back for dark.
Sunday 31st October
The weather had cleared up and it was very warm and sunny for our local excursion.
I took a taxi with Ilan to just north of Van Iskele (15 from the centre) to a point where we could clearly get to the lake. We walked along the shoreline south across the railway to the ferry terminal and through the brand new park area. The shoreline south of Iskele ferry is now one long promenade with benches every few metres, there is a children's play area and the entire landward side has a one metre high concrete wall marking the boundary. We walked south until at the far end of the park we met a 4 metre wide stream. It was not deep and could be easily forded in bare feet but I didn't fancy cutting my foot on the rubbish-strewn riverbed. It looks like they have concrete blocks ready to make a footbridge across the stream so access may be improved in the future.
We followed the stream inland and then came across our big discovery; a small patch of neglected marsh bordered by the concrete boundary wall to the west, the stream to the south and wasteland/housing to the east. I shall call this wonderful patch Iskele Park Marsh. Please see the rough map below.
The other major discovery was an easily driveable access to the South Van Marsh. From Van you approach Iskele on a dead straight very long dual carriageway. Just before the road forks and you meet the railway line there are some shops and a bus stop on the south side. About 80m before the bus stop there is a road south, after about 500m it crosses the stream, take the first road right and after 200m you fork right, past abandoned boats and then you are right out only yards from the shoreline and in a good position to scope the open water of South Van Marshes.
I also suggest that the best way to get to Van Marshes by public transport is to get a Dolmus to Iskele, get off at the fork and walk the above route onto the marsh.
We got a Dolmus back into town from the bus stop (only 1 each), then a taxi to the airport for our afternoon flight back to Istanbul and work the next day.
ND Nemrut Dagi on 30 October
IP Hills above Ishak Pashak Palace, 29 October
Dog. Dogubayazit, 29 October
INS Iskele north side, as walked on 31 October. The shoreline of Lake Van north of the ferry terminal; this is called North Van Marshes in Gosney but all we saw was a pathetic stringy muddy patch 10m behind the shoreline which held absolutely no waders or ducks, everything was on the shoreline or sitting on the lake.
ISS Iskele south side, as walked on 31 October. The shoreline south of the ferry terminal, this was devoid of any waders, the shoreline further south adjacent to South Van Marshes appeared to be one gigantic rubbish heap.
IPM Iskele Park Marsh Watched on 31 October The small patch of marsh to the south-east of the new Iskele Park.
Van Castle Walked around on 28 October.
Systematic List (In Collins Bird Guide Order)
A very common bird on Van lake; several hundred offshore from INS, almost none from ISS.
Great Crested Grebe
One off ISS.
A pair seen well from INS, the male still sported a black ring at this late date.
No sign on the crater lake at ND, but I could not see more than 60% of the lake. Have they gone by now?
No other ducks at all seen.
A 1st winter at IP and 2 birds over the slopes going up ND.
Common (presumed steppe) Buzzard
A few sitting in fields going to Dog.
One on the way to Dog. 1 at IP.
One near Van Castle
One at IPM
Hundreds off ISS and elsewhere on Van lake.
A few on the marsh near Van castle.
The common wader along the INS, over 200 in active flocks.
A few at INS and 1 at IPM
Often seen in ones and twos around Van lake.
2 at INS
Black Headed Gull
Hundreds off INS, common where streams flow into Van Lake e.g. 2 km east of Tatvan on the Van road.
All the nice adults fitted the book; common at INS and often seen in groups resting at the lakeshore.
No sign of Slender-billed despite checking carefully. I had one very strong candidate for young Pallas's gull fly past off ISS but got on it too late; this bird was a big pale gull with long narrow wings held in a deep M, flying more like a small heron or curlew. Hope to catch up with this bogey bird on a winter trip to the south coast.
Small flocks often seen.
1 at a marshy area on Van lake south shore half way to Tatvan.
Complete nightmare! Convinced myself I was seeing flocks of flying Calandra over the road to Dog. but every lark I scoped on the deck was Skylark.
5 above IP, several on slopes up to ND. All were the pale penicillata with the big neck band.
Common at INS and elsewhere, lots of funny calls but all the pipits seen well were meadow.
Possibly the most widespread small bird at this time.
Good views of a probable male and another duller individual at IPM.
Happy that 1 female type in the trees below Van castle was this species.
Seen at ND crater, IP and ISS, one was clearly a male ochruros.
A few going up to ND, a few on the road to Dog. 1 at IP, no sniff of anything else.
A stunning bird on the wall bordering IPM sporting a huge white rump and white wing patches but it had no black just grey-buff so perhaps adult female or winter male?
Heard contact call very often, seen well only at Van castle and IPM.
No other warblers.
One seen well above IP which at the time I ticked as Eastern Rock was followed by an identical bird near the crater lake at ND. Both had very strong buff underparts and a strong dark line behind the eye. I have since seen some photos on the internet of Rock Nuthatch and these fit the bird. I do think the Collins guide underplays the strength of the buffy underparts and the thickness of the line behind the eye. It was interesting to note that in Lars Johnson's Birds of Europe he paints Eastern Rock (Great Rock) as a pale bird with a very thick line behind the eye whilst his Rock is spot-on for my birds. Anyone know a good photo of Eastern Rock on the internet?
Few seen most places.
One over the road south of Lake Van.
Fairly common around Van castle; the pale epaulets are variable from obvious to hardly present, some birds near Istanbul show stronger epaulets than these.
2 seen well at IP, others too high to see bill but structure was Alpine but commonest call was Red-billed. Confused? You would be too.
Some very large flocks on fields around Van Lake.
Often present near shoreline.
1 by road near Van, 2 going up ND.
Flocks occasionally encountered, no sign of their rosy brethren
Some good flocks around Iskele.
A few birds seen.
The commonest small bird at altitude; small flocks at IP and ND.
Small flock near Van castle.
3 birds on the scrub in Iskele Park
One bird flushed with sparrows from the trees near IPM.
No other finches despite some hard looking no sign of Snowfinch, Crimson-winged or Mongolian at IP.
Some good views at INS and IPM but all were normal, not the thick billed reiseri.
Bunting sp. One brief but close view of a large bunting with a pale whitish eyering and reddish buff underparts at the crater lake, ND. Shame I didn't get a second view as it was certainly one of Ortolan/Cretzschmar's/Grey-necked.
The star bird at IPM. It was skulking at ground level but gave good views; a winter plumaged male bird on the very late date of 31 October.
In summary as much as could be expected at that late date. Indeed late October can be very cold and wet at Van but this year has been an exceptionally fine and dry October.
Hopefully this report may encourage others to explore this region out of season. The general lack of birds is compensated by pleasant weather (cool air but warm sun) and no insects.
I have started a two year contract working in Istanbul and hope to produce further trip reports in Turkey with an "out of season" flavour.
You can contact me at email@example.com
I am happy for anyone to use this report to help them travel and bird watch in Turkey. However if you quote directly or incorporate maps into other reports you should give due credit:
Van trip report 28 - 31 Oct 2004 by MJ Grunwell.