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Birecik and surrounds 11th-12th December 2004,
A trip report by Michael Grunwell, an English birder currently living and working in Istanbul.
I flew to Gaziantep for the weekend of 11/12 December 2004, I visited Birecik, Halfeti and followed the river south to Gurcay. The key discoveries were wintering Radde's Accentor at Halfeti, a large concentration of water birds south of Birecik and a huge winter roost of black kite.
I flew with Turkish airlines from Istanbul to Gaziantep, arriving on time at 9:30. I was met by a rep from the car rental company and was away within 10 minutes.
I had originally planned to go the previous weekend, I had boarded the late Friday evening flight and was waiting in a packed cabin when the captain calmly announced that the flight was cancelled due to fog at Gaziantep. I was not impressed, particularly given that I had to reclaim my bag by entering arrivals from the wrong direction. Fortunately, being Turkey someone will always grab you and take you straight through; try that at Heathrow!
The good news was that during the next week I found a new road map that will doubtless become the standard issue for birding trips.
It is called OtoAtlas Turkiye, published by Mapmedya of Istanbul in October 2004.
Their website is www.mapmedya.net and the ISBN is 975-6206-00-4, It is a spiral bound book with 103 pages of maps all at 1:600,000 scale. This makes it a slightly smaller scale than the Ryborsch 1:500,000 series.
Compared to the Ryborsch:
I would recommend that anyone driving in Turkey buys a copy of the road atlas (YTL 17 in Turkey) plus a copy of the Ryborsch maps as a second opinion.
So, back to the trip.
The hire car was the usual Renault Clio saloon 1.4 which cost YTL 90 for two days all-inclusive. I booked the hire car and got the air tickets through the Levent, Istanbul branch of Trek Turizm. The boss there speaks good English and is highly efficient and does a proper agent's job. If you want to arrange flights, car hire or hotels you can contact Ms. Samiye Zubaroglu on tel. 00 90 212 325 87 82 or email email@example.com
I was particularly pleased when I saw the car had a huge chip in the windscreen and the guy didn't bother with a damage report; I would much rather drive not having to worry about every scratch and chip than have to face an inquisition on return over every blemish.
I set off, filled up with petrol (to fill up cost nearly as much as the whole rental) and decided to avoid driving round Gaziantep to Birecik by heading east to Oguzeli and thence by minor road up to the main road to Birecik. My new road atlas was off to a bad start because Gaziantep airport is marked 8km too far north!
From Oguzeli I followed the road south east towards Karkamis, just a km south of the town I noticed how woody the area was and then noticed several large raptors flying around the treetops. These were black kite, thinking there must be a rubbish dump nearby I tried several tracks west but I couldn't find the centre of attraction. Back on the main road I was just leaving when a stack of at least 60 birds formed over a nearby wood. I was confused as to why so many birds would be hanging around with no obvious food source, had I just fluked onto a large migrating group? The whole experience was reminiscent of red kites at Tregaron in winter except these were black and there were more of them.
1 km further south from the black kites I took the road east signed Tinazdere and spent a half hour checking orchards along the minor road to Direkli. I was reluctant to venture far from the car as the area had a lot of very aggressive large dogs, some wearing the scary huge spiked collars like Butch off Tom and Jerry. I cannot understand why Turks tolerate such uncontrolled aggressive dogs on every road.
I took the wrong turn in Direkli, ended up back at Oguzeli then failed to find the road north so in the end I was forced to travel to Birecik via Gaziantep.
The main road east of Gaziantep is horrible; it has a very poor cut-up surface with too many slow trucks. I was thoroughly fed up with the 50 minute drive to Birecik, please don't consider driving any further east to places such as Van, you will spend too much time risking your life and not enough enjoying birding.
I drove straight to the ibis site, my plan was to walk with Ibrahim to look for Eagle Owl (one of my big world-list bogeys). Ibrahim was still there but he said he had to stay at the reserve. I spent a few minutes watching the birds in the first enclosure, the second enclosure is 80m further back beyond the rope barrier, I learnt that there were 72 birds altogether.
I left after 15 minutes clutching a rather pathetic mug and unsure as to what to do next.
I drove north to the new hydro-electric dam and spent an excellent hour watching masses of birds in the orchards near the compound. At times the ground was a seething mass of crested lark, chaffinch, goldfinch, brambling and a few desert finch. Syrian woodpeckers were particularly common in the area.
The large lake above the dam was devoid of birds.
I decided to head for Halfeti and my major target species of the trip: Eastern Rock Nuthatch. The Gosney gen mentions the road north of Halfeti and in particular the cemetery as a good site. I can report that as of December 2004 this information is void; the creation of the lake has raised the water level many metres so that the only access north or south of Halfeti is now by boat.
I spent the rest of that cold, dull afternoon standing in a lay by above the village looking down onto a scrubby, rock strewn area with a winding path going up through the middle.
In the space of an hour, from the same scope position and within 50m of one spot I saw the following birds (along with plenty of Black Redstarts and Chaffinch)
A pair of Eastern Rock with a pair of Rock nuthatch; some fantastic close views with good comparisons made and much calling by both species.
A female blue rock thrush.
A male rock bunting
One Radde's accentor skulking at the bottom of bushes.
By 3:45 it was getting dark and I decided this was where I was to return the next morning so I drove back to Birecik this time continuing on the "main" road back to the E90. This road was being rebuilt as a new dual carriageway, possibly as the new road east and it was difficult to negotiate the maze of diversions and ramps. I checked into the motel on the bridge and paid 20 for a nice room. Unfortunately I was the only guest and so they didn't bother with switching on the central heating or hot water.
One cold night later it was light at 6:45 and I was away by 7:00
Sunday 12th December 2004
I drove straight back to Halfeti, to where I had spent the previous afternoon, however the sun was a good hour from hitting the slope so I drove back to the top of the hill and checked out the cliffs for Wallcreeper (one day!) I had lots of small flocks flitting past, some were crested lark, some unidentified. I then had great views of 2 sombre tits in the last orchard before the road drops to Halfeti.
I then spent over an hour patiently scanning the bushes and rocks of the slopes immediately above Halfeti. It was just above freezing but in contrast to Saturday remained clear and sunny all day. I discovered that the birds are very secretive, they will fly away as soon as they see you and the only way to get decent views is to give them space, stand back and scope. I had great scope views of two Radde's accentor feeding together in long grass a metre from the roadside; they were flushed by a kid and never came back. I also had superb views of female blue rock thrush and several rock bunting.
How many Radde's were in the area? At least two but at one point a bird perched and gave a brief sub song so I suspect there may be quite a few feeding quietly perhaps in a secluded gully or under a thick bush.
After more great views of Eastern Rock and another Sombre tit I decided to head back to Birecik and look for larks in fields for the afternoon.
I stopped briefly at the restaurant next to the motel for a quick lunch then set off west looking for a road south.
I found a road south signed to Gunalti, headed south east and had my first distant view of the flooded river valley. I realised the theme for the rest of the day would be water birds not larks. The rest of the afternoon was spent driving south skirting the water and constantly scoping the masses of birds. Please see map for full details.
The closest views were obtained just north of Gurcay where the water has flooded right up to the side of the road. Here I had fantastic close views of winter plumaged whiskered tern.
The only negative on a great afternoon's birding was at least three boats each with five or six armed men which spent the whole time noisily speeding up and down the valley. On scoping the hunters I realised they were shooting at anything in range which was mostly flying coot which were shot out of the sky but often not retrieved. What are they going to do with dead coot anyway? Unfortunately my scope does not have an RPG attached so I could only fulminate as more than 15 sad middle-aged men shot at everything in sight.
This site has so many birds it really ought to be protected from these idiots. It's not the pile of dead coot in the front of one the boats that bothers me the most but the level of constant disturbance.
Perhaps some conservation body could make representations to the Turkish authorities?
I promised myself not to drive after dark so I left to drive back to the airport at 3:15, I drove past Karkamis and took a good road back to Oguzeli, stopping en route for a hen harrier and to check birds on wires. As I got back to the point 2 km from Oguzeli I recognised the area and wondered about the kites, at this very moment a line of black kite appeared across the road, the first I had seen that day. I stopped the car, got out and was amazed to see about 200 black kite flying around and dropping into trees, the sun set around 16:10 and from then to 16:30 over just my bit of road I counted 400 black kite heading for what must be a major roost site about 1 km west of the road.
Given that I was only counting kites coming from one direction and that many may have passed before my arrival the figure of 600 is a bare minimum, it is probably over a thousand birds and perhaps much more.
Where do they all go during the day? How many birds roost here? Is it just a winter site or do they breed here as well? I hope birders may visit the site to help answer these questions.
By 4:30 kites were still going past in the gloom but it was getting very cold and I wanted to get to the airport before I lost all light.
I returned the car, got the 8.00 pm flight back to Istanbul and was back at my apartment for 10.30, what a great weekend's birding!
Systematic list of birds seen on Saturday 11th December and Sunday 12th December 2004 in Collins Bird Guide Order
Hal. = Halfeti on either the Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning
Bir. = Birecik area either on the Saturday afternoon
or Sunday morning
BHD =Area around the Birecik hydro-electric dam compound
Oguzeli= A town about 25 km south-east of Gaziantep
EVnoGD = The flooded Euphrates valley north of the Gurcay hydro-electric dam
Common at EVnoGD
Great Crested Grebe
1 at EVnoGD
At least 50 birds at EVnoGD, no other phalacrocorids seen.
Northern Bald Ibis
72 captive birds at the centre
100+ at EVnoGD
100+ at EVnoGD
Just one drake at EVnoGD
The commonest duck at EVnoGD, into the thousands.
At least 600 and probably well over 1000 at the roost 2km south of Oguzeli
8+ at EVnoGD, mostly at the more distant northern end
1 female between Karkamis and Oguzeli
Widely spread sightings of at least 8 birds.
One male hunting near Kelekli.
Often seen, 20+ during the weekend.
1 male around the cliffs just north of the ibis site early on Sunday morning.
Tens of thousands at EVnoGD.
4 near Gurcay
1 near Gurcay
Black headed gull No more than 100 birds seen along the Euphrates.
At least 1 adult on a shingle bank near the Ibis site.
At least 4 nice adults sharing the shingle bank with 1 Caspian and 20+ assorted, unidentified immatures.
25+ at EVnoGD
Often in small flocks near villages
1 at Direkli, 2 south of Hal. 3 near EVnoGD, 2 west of Karkamis
1 at Halfeti, 1 at EVnoGD
4 birds seen on the road to BHD.
Commonly seen in orchards and around rocky areas.
2 at Hal.
1 skulking next to a Radde's at Hal.
At least 2 birds at Hal.
Few at Hal.
Widespread and common in rocky areas. The males varied in the amount of white in the wing but none showed any red above the legs.
At least 10 birds seen but all had boring rumps.
Blue Rock Thrush
A showy female at Hal.
1 from the watch point at Hal, 2 in orchards at the top of the road.
One pair at Hal.
* Eastern Rock Nuthatch
Probably slightly commoner than rock at Halfeti, at least 4 birds seen plus more heard. This bird was on my official world list since Turkey in July 1987, however in those days we were just making it up as we went along as there was not a decent field guide. I can now re-tick with confidence!
Odd singles seen
A common bird.
Some very large flocks in fields around EVnoGD.
Common in drier areas.
A few around Hal.
The commonest small bird in orchards.
About 20 at the orchards at BHD.
Several small flocks.
A few birds in orchards.
At least 3, probably about 8 birds in orchards at BHD.
A flock of 15 birds at the top of Halfeti hill was probably this species.
9 at Direkli, a few in orchards.
A very elusive bird at Halfeti, perhaps as many as 12 birds in the area.
I hope you found this report useful, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 my maps into other reports you should give due credit:
Birecik and surrounds trip report 11/12 Dec 2004 by MJ Grunwell.