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Birding around Van, Doğubayazit, and Erçek, 28th to 30th June 2005,
A trip report by Michael Grunwell, an English birder living and working in Istanbul.
I flew to Van for two nights, hired a car and birded around Doğubayazit and Erçek. I explored a route close to the Iranian border and drove around lake Erçek.
Tuesday 28th June 2005
There are currently two flights a day from Istanbul to Van; a morning Turkish Airlines flight and a midday Atlas Jet flight. You can buy Atlas Jet tickets from agents in Istanbul; you pay on a per leg basis as with economy airlines in western Europe at a price set by demand and supply. In order to maximise birding time I wanted to fly out with Turkish arriving at 10:30 on Tuesday and returning on the 15:20 flight back on Atlas on Thursday afternoon. Arranging the tickets was straightforward but before I paid the YTL 130 out/YTL 105 back I wanted to get car hire sorted.
On my last visit to Van in October I was with others and we managed to charter a taxi for YTL 120 per day, this covered all the fuel (cheap LPG) used on daytrips to the Ishak Paşa, Doğubayazit and Nemrut Dag, Tatvan. Because I wanted to do serious car-based birding this was not really an option so I investigated the costs of car hire at Van. Car hire at Van must be the most expensive in Turkey as the cheapest I could find was with Avis at YTL 110 per day. A Turkish colleague was able to phone Avis in Van and arrange the hire for just over two days but to only pay for two days. As usual in Turkey Avis insisted on charging for three days but then agreed when we “walked away”.
Top tip: Never ask how much something costs, merely make a low offer and walk away when refused, this will usually start a serious negotiation.
I got off the Turkish flight on time at 10:30 found the Avis desk (the only hire-office at the airport) collected my bag and was ushered out to the car. To describe Avis at Van as amateurish would be too generous, I walked to the car to be told that I would be driving the two Avis ladies back to the office down town to do the paperwork. I was never asked for any ID or my driving licence before setting off. The car I was given was a Fiat Albea; built in Turkey they are the new Istanbul taxi slowly replacing the ancient Fiat 131 (built under licence by Tofaş).
The Fiat Albea is a very well-built car designed for Turkish roads, I would definitely choose it for driving in Turkey ahead of, say, a Ford Focus.
I filled in some paperwork at the office, paid the full YTL 220 in advance and then set off. I then realised that Avis had failed to get a blank credit card slip from me and had not given me a copy of the contract. I was surprised that not one person spoke English; translation was provided by a local shopkeeper who was keen for my custom at his hotel.
For the first time on one of my flying visits I actually had a clear set of target species:
Cinereous bunting: Hopefully around Van or further north.
Grey-necked bunting: Ditto
Mongolian finch: I would try at the Ishak Paşa.
Pale rock/hill sparrow: Hope to bump into.
I decided to start with a return to south Van marshes. As per my October report car access is straightforward. Drive out to Van Iskele on the straight dual carriageway. At the very end of the dual, the road forks, the right hand fork crossing the railway. Just at the fork is an obvious bus shelter on the left with a shop just before this. 30 metres before the shop two roads go south (left). Take the leftmost road for about 500m, it crosses a stream and 100m later there is a good road to the right which goes right out to the shoreline. This road has been improved since my last visit as there is much heavy plant excavating near the mouth of the stream, they may be putting in a footbridge so that you can walk south onto the marshes from the new Iskele Park. (see my October report).
This was the first of three brief visits to south Van marshes and other than some distant marsh terns there was not much to see. As with most sites if I actually got out and walked around a bit I might see some more birds but I am a nervous birder when alone with a genuine phobia of feral dogs.
I drove off east towards Erçek, I struggled to find the grey-necked site as I had forgotten to bring my Gosney along. If you take the Erçek road out of Van you pass the bus station (otogar) then after a few km pass a lake to your right with a rubbish dump to the left. Another km beyond is a large active quarry on the right. I believe this is the site often mentioned in gen however I could see no driveable track around the quarry. Opposite the quarry is a road which winds up into low hills, I visited this site several times and saw plenty of Bimaculated lark and hoopoe with black-eared wheatear, again there may well have been buntings around the hill tops but the whole area was crawling with feral dogs and so I was hiking nowhere!
I drove on towards Erçek and discovered access onto the south shore of the lake (see map1 and map2). After more than an hour of scanning waders along the south shore I left for Doğubayazit. It is a reasonable two and a half hour drive from Van to Doğubayazit, I planned to spend the next day birding the road so rushed up to get some evening birding around the Ishak Paşa (IP). I have used the Turkish name as this is what appears on road signs rather than the English form Ishak Pashak.
On entering the town of Doğubayazit, the first tall building on the left is the new Golden Hill Hotel, just before the traffic lights where you turn right to the IP. I do not often recommend hotels as they are usually much the same however the Golden Hill is an extremely plush 4 star place with big rooms and great balconies; my room was on the NE side and gave great views of both big Ararat and the IP. I got the cost down to a very reasonable YTL 40 which included a good breakfast on the roof top. The evening food was uninspiring but reasonably priced. I would recommend this hotel because it is away from the noise and bustle of the town centre, has a large car park and the roof top is such a great place to spend an evening, though you might want to eat first down town.
Having checked in I then set off for two hours evening birding around the IP. The IP is well signed, from the main road turn right at the lights just past the Golden Hill Hotel, go up the hill then turn left which takes you through the central shopping area, after about 2km turn right in front of a big filling station, the road then deviates to the right in front of a military base, climbs up to a decorative fountain/roundabout where you turn left. From here you pass the side of the military base, look out for the rows of parked Patton M48 tanks (unsure of which variant).
The road then climbs into the scenic hills. As per my October 2004 Van report, drive on past the palace, you drop down and up a valley then arrive at the second bigger car park/picnic area. I continued on the dirt track behind the car park. I must report that this track has much deteriorated since the previous autumn; I assume the severe winter with heavy snow does most of the damage. Last October I had planned to take the track well up into the hills this summer but it is now almost impassable to 2WD after only 150m. I hoped to see Mongolian finch on the greenish mudstone slopes, I spent a lot of time scanning as I was not going to risk a walk with sheep flocks all around but this was the biggest disappointment of the trip; nothing of any note.
I then explored the road below the IP and found the road to the south east (see map3), I found a Rock Sparrow nest just along the road and decided to work the road the next morning. I returned to the hotel for a good night’s sleep with a very early start the next day.
Wednesday 29th June 2005
I was away from the Golden Hill hotel around 04:30 and was soon parked about 100m up the dirt track beyond the second car park at the IP. It may have been too early as the sun was not yet on the slopes and I saw very little. I was starting to wonder how I was going to get grey-necked bunting so decided to carry on the road signed to Yk. Tavler. This road starts about 500m below the IP and cannot be missed as it is the only junction on the way up to the IP. I have produced a rough map of the road, it is a good birding road because it goes through several different habitats including a lot of high altitude grassy areas where bimac are common. It also gives great views of both Big Ararat (5165m – a proper mountain with a snowy cap) and Little Ararat (3896m- an old volcanic cone), note that the true Mt. Ararat (4094m) is north west of Yerevan in Armenia.
I drove as far as the junction signed to the village of Dostali, it was still very early and several sheep flocks were being herded along the road, too late I found myself trying to reverse surrounded by hundreds of sheep. Within seconds I had what appeared to be every sheepdog in eastern turkey around the car, I counted no less than 6 snarling, vicious, barking, huge mangy dogs. After I had managed to turn round several smiling shepherds appeared and one kindly offered to attempt a modicum of dog control, he appeared to offer two choices; in one hand a large stick, in the other a large rock. These guys have no real control over their dogs, you would be crazy to be anywhere near these animals on foot.
Suggestions for a better quality of birding life in Turkey:
Number 1: Exterminate all dogs, spare none.
Start with the feral dogs, I propose that hunters should refrain from using guns and instead prove their manliness in the new sport of feral dog stabbing, armed only with a three inch blade one would have to track, ambush, attack and stab to death hungry dogs with massive jaws, it would certainly provide better sport than shooting coot though slightly more risky to the hunter!
I am of course (half) joking, I just can’t abide feral dogs (or hunters)!
I drove back towards the IP, about 300m above the junction there is a deep gully with several large exposed rocks. It was here that I had my one good view of a singing male grey-necked bunting, the bird was singing from a rocky outcrop 40m below me and I got good scope views before it dropped out of sight. I feel sure I had heard the song several times around the IP at dawn but they are not easy to see.
Pleased with my target tick I drove back to the hotel for a seriously large breakfast from a help-yourself buffet on the rooftop. After checking out I decided to try the road again and see how far I could get, with the aim of looping round and joining up with the main road from the Iranian border. I was very surprised that considering I was driving on literally the last road in Turkey with Iran just over the next hill I never once met a checkpoint. I must recommend the road as a pleasant two hour diversion, you may see more birds than me and you will certainly get some excellent photo opportunities.
I drove the road all the way down to the main road near Telçeker; the maın road to/from Iran was wide, well maintained and almost empty of traffic. I drove back past Doğubayazit and then drove north looking for lakes and wetlands. I could not find any decent roads east towards the lake marked as Şeyhlı Gölü on the OtoAtlas but I did find a shallow lake just to the east of the road. I was able to drive the 300m right over to the water’s edge but saw nothing except some distant white-winged black terns and numerous large horseflies. I decided to spend most of the rest of the day working the main road south particularly the highest parts near the Iranian border.
The road south to Çaldiran climbs to nearly 9,000 feet and offers tremendous scenery and wonderful birding. The biggest problem is that the road is busy and it is frustrating that birds do not linger close to the road due to the noise of passing vehicles, particularly over laden trucks either struggling uphill or using engine braking going down.
I was expecting to see rosy starling but there was not a single bird to be seen, I did get great views of several rock thrushes perched on wires and a skulking Radde’s accentor at the highest point of the pass.
I did not bother with the Selale waterfall area as it appeared full of coaches. The Bendimahi marshes were very difficult to view with nowhere to pull up on that very busy section
The traffic is busy once you meet the road from Erçiş and follow the Van shoreline south. I was desperate to get away from traffic and also to get to Lake Erçek wıthout goıng down to Van. After an hour of exploring roads I discovered that contrary to all published maps, there is no road access direct from Van lake south east to Lake Erçek. The problem is the river marked as Mermit Çayi once had a road bridge linking the villages of Değırmenözu and Aş Gölalan but thıs ıs now derelıct. (See map 1)
I then drove back to Van and tried my luck on the road opposite the quarry. I was struggling to find anywhere decent to bird from near the car and so returned for another brief spell at south Van marshes. I felt as though I had done enough birding by early evening and wanted to find a decent hotel away from the middle of Van. Drive south out of Van on the main road, about 8km beyond the airport you get to the outskirts of Edremıt. The first big hotel, right on the shoreline is the Otel Tusba. This is quite pleasant with big rooms, good parking, lots of hot water and offered a decent hot buffet for dinner plus a good breakfast all for YTL 50. I could have got a similar room without dinner downtown for 25 but I was too tired to face the bustle of central Van.
I was asleep before it was fully dark.
Thursday 30th June 2005
Up early I had breakfast overlooking the lake and planned the birding day. I had blown Mongolian finch and was giving up on hill/pale rock sparrow (a species I vaguely recall watching in ’87). That still left cinereous bunting but I was not optimistic about finding suitable habitat without hiking. I also wanted to work as much as possible the shoreline of Lake Erçek given the good number of waders I had seen the first day. I checked out and then made a potentially fatal error: The road outside the hotel is dual carriageway, the other carriageway is obscured by a bushy central reservation. Thinking it was two-way I turned left, after I had passed some bemused drivers I realised I was on the wrong side and quickly made amends. It was fortunate that I did not meet overtaking truck drivers!
I spent another hour near the quarry, great views of black-eared wheatear, hoopoe and bimac plus rock nuthatch. I then headed east, as you first see the water of Lake Erçek take a left turn, cross the railway line, do not go into the village of Genedelova, instead, about 50m north of the railway turn right, this road goes all the way round the lake.
It took me more than three hours to drive right round the lake, it is a wonderful route and has much to recommend it:
As the very best birding is to be had in the SE corner I would recommend you go clockwise from the SW corner otherwise you might not be bothered to go all the way and would miss out on a fantastic experience.
My flight was at 15:20 so I wanted to be back for 14:00 I lingered on the south shore scoping waders in the beautiful sunshine until just after 1pm then headed back. The Atlas Jet flight was fine back to Istanbul, running a little late but at least I had a great half day’s birding.
List of better birds seen 28th-30th June in Collins Bird Guide order
(due to the elapse of time I cannot remember everything, perhaps I should take notes!)
Key: see attached maps for full details:
IP The famous Ishak Paşa Sarayı just south east of Dog.
Dog. Doğubayazit, the famous town near the Iranian border, 2½ hour’s drive from Van.
LE Lake Erçek (Erçek Gölü) a large saline lake at 1803m altitude, east of Lake Van and 50m higher.
Fairly common on LE, 300+
400+ on LE mostly in SE corner
30+ on LE
4000+ on LE, most in a distant flock in SE corner. Some birds on the shore near Erçek with young chicks. What are they doing here? Are they non-breeders or returning failed breeders?
Fairly common, some distant birds around Van castle may have been lesser.
A female flushed just by the road near Pirgarip dropped back and gave excellent views.
Fairly common on LE
Fairly common on LE
Little ringed plover
A few around the remote northern shore of LE
A few seen
A few seen
One of the most widespread waders, but thinly spread out.
The commonest breeding wader; always present in wet grassy areas.
A few in the good SE corner of LE.
10+ seen around LE
A common bird in good wading areas
The common large gull
White-winged black tern
Big flocks in SE corner of LE at least 150 birds, 15+ at south Van marshes and elsewhere
6+ at south Van marshes
Often seen; common near the quarry east of Van
Few around eastern shore of LE
Probably two birds in a sandy field along west shore of LE
Lesser short-toed lark
Fairly happy that a bird seen an hour after the short-toeds was an aharonii. I could have spent much more time sorting out the small larks but the lure of waders and and the sheer excitement of being so far east meant I lacked motivation to stare at LBJs.
Very much a bird of upland grassy areas.
Common and easy to see at the following sites:
Several penicillata on the highest stretches of the road beyond IP.
Several birds in upland grassy areas.
At the very highest point of the road from Çaldiran to Doğubayazit. there is a large layby on the west side. Just north, near the road is a small muddy pool, I had a single Radde’s skulking around here.
By far the commonest wheatear
Few seen in the more bushy, cultivated areas.
A gorgeous pale throated male north of the quarry, several around the barren northern shore of LE.
I was surprised how easy they were along the main Caldiran-Dog. road at the high point, I saw four lovely males, all perched on wires near the road.
One briefly at IP.
Eastern rock nuthatch
Only very brief views but I was reasonably sure of a pair near the quarry and a bird on the north shore of LE.
I was surprised to see at least 6 birds along the highest stretch of the main Caldiran-Dog. road, including several very young fledglings.
Few seen in rocky areas, an amazing nest hole 1km along the IP side road.
Singing male early morning from atop a rocky outcrop half way down the deep gully, along the side road about 300m south of the junction below IP. Probably at least two other birds singing. Without hiking this may be a difficult bird to see.
Ubiquitous along wires, common in damper areas.
A very common bird.
In summary some nice birds and great scenery.
I am sure I would have seen cinereous bunting, pale rock sparrow and mongolian finch if I had walked slopes but my aversion to canine encounters ruled that option out.
To get the best out of the area you would have to go hiking, I strongly suggest you keep together and chuck rocks as soon as feral dogs appear, if you get scratched or bitten you will have to spend a lot of time and trouble on anti-rabies treatment. Never walk anywhere near sheep flocks as there will be a huge vicious anatolian sheepdog waiting to pounce!
If I visited again in summer I would want to explore down to the south east corner on the Iraq/Iran border areas, though the Iraqi border is probably best avoided at present.
I have now left Turkey so this is my last trip report. I am curently working on a guide to birding around Istanbul so stay tuned.
I hope you found this report useful, 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 my maps into other reports you should give due credit:
Van, Doğubayazit and Erçek June 2005 by MJ Grunwell