Visit your favourite destinations
|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
Where to watch birds around Istanbul, based on the author’s stay in the city October 2004 – July 2005.
Istanbul is the business, trade and cultural capital of Turkey. It is by far the largest city in the country with a fast growing population estimated at over 15 million. Most visitors stay in the central touristy areas and are not aware of just how large the city is. Cheaply built 6-8 storey flats are the norm and stretch in huge sprawls for many km westward along the Marmaran coast on the European (Thracian) side and even further in huge suburbs south east into Anatolia.
The vast and growing population is served by an excellent bus and dolmus (small private buses) system complemented by countless yellow taxis. The road system is clogged morning and evening during the week and given the current relatively low rate of car ownership congestion can only get worse in the future. Taxis are reasonable when sharing especially as you only pay for distance not time.
There can be few more dispiriting birding experiences than driving in winter through drab concrete suburbs with hardly a stretch of greenery to be seen. Even when you get away from the housing the habitat to the north of the city is mostly secondary growth covering poor soil, it looks superficially attractive but has very low bird populations in winter and is dominated by olivaceous warbler and nightingale and precious little else in summer.
The two birding highlights of a visit to the city are a boat trip on the Bosphorus and raptor passage.
Raptor passage, like sea watching, is an acquired taste with most birds passing at great height and speed and rarely giving close or prolonged views. There is no best place to view passage as it is so dependent on weather. I would summarise the general pattern thus:
For Autumn passage most visitors watch from Büyük Çamlica, looking west from just below the summit by the low white fence. I have not visited in August and September when the dominant birds are storks, levant sparrowhawk and honey buzzard. I found early October producing masses of steppe buzzard and lesser-spotted eagle. Steppe buzzards are the common species through into early November.
Others will be of far more use on raptor passage than me who thinks a bird is too far away if you can’t easily identify it with bins.
The general rule is to expect no passage on rainy days but to have good numbers the first fine day after rain. Watchpoints across the southern Bosphorus are best with most winds but a southerly wind tends to push birds into a more northerly crossing.
For views of raptors at the northern end I can recommend two sites:
The old castle ruins above the small tourist village of Anadolu Kivagi is my favourite place to watch passage at it has much nicer surroundings than the Çamlica sites. Anadolu Kivagi is at the extreme north-east end of the Bosphorus, on the Asian side. You can drive here but the traffic jams along the east side can be horendous during weekends. You can take a bus up the eastern side all the way the to the village but by far the easiest way is to use public transport thus:
Metro to the end of the line at 4. Levent.
From 4. Levent bus station take any bus going direct to Sariyer (take an inland route via Maslak not one that goes by the coast).
Get off of at the Sariyer Iskele (ferry). There is a regular boat service across to A. Kivagi. There is also a daily tourist ferry which sails all the way up to A. Kivagi from central Istanbul.
On arriving at the harbour walk past all the fish restaurants and head up the hill, after 10 minutes hard walk you get to the lower castle wall. You can either walk up the rough track through the gap in the wall or continue up the road to the car park. Either way the view of the northern entrance to the Bosphoros is great.
I am told that this is the place to watch on southerly winds.
Another good site is from a famous mosque/shrine about 6 km south of A. Kivagi which is just south of the power line crossing. This can give good close views of birds coming across from Sariyer however viewing can be limited by the unnecessary flag poles and on weekends the crowds of pilgrims/tourists can be overwhelming. If you do watch from here please be respectful of the religious sensitivities of the site (no shorts or bare chests).
I have more experience of spring passage than autumn and can summarise spring passage thus:
Passage starts with White storks in the second week of April. Around the third week of April I was seeing large numbers of lesser-spotted eagle heading across Belgrade forest (see below). For me, the peak days for spring passage in 2005 were 11th-13th May when I had thousands of honey buzzard plus many other species heading west over the town of Zekeriyaköy (north of Bahçeköy). This is on the last high ridge before the Black Sea and is an excellent spot for “northerly” passage. From the centre of Zekeriyaköy head up to the three transmission masts; the flat area near the masts affords excellent all-round views.
That’s it for raptor passage, now for some more relaxed birding:
Map of Istanbul area with sites marked.
Site1. Bosphorus crossing and Kadiköy harbour. One of the real joys of Istanbul is the frequent and cheap ferries which criss-cross the Bosphorus. They give excellent opportunities to study Caspian gull and tick off passing Levant shearwater. The long breakwaters sheltering the harbour at Kadiköy provide a resting place for countless great cormorant and gulls.
Site2. Yildiz park. The park is found a km east of Beşiktaş and is easy to reach by bus or taxi from the centre. This is easily the best park in central Istanbul and well worth spending time in the well-wooded interior. In winter an hour’s stroll during a weekday should yield hawfinch, Syrian woodpecker and rose-ringed parakeet with fieldfare and redwing during snowy periods. In spring it will need exploring to find a range of warblers. Whilst the park is a safe area with a heavy police presence walking around with bins can be uncomfortable due to the presence of numerous courting couples seeking refuge behind every bush and tree!
Site3. Belgrade forest. (see map)
The area north of the city on the European side is heavily wooded but most areas are coniferous planting or scrubby secondary growth with little to offer. In addition most of the area is either closed military land or private with no access. Standing out is the area of public forest around the town of Bahçeköy. Most of the woodland here consists of mature beech, hornbeam and oak and borders several lakes. Bahçeköy is without doubt the best mature woodland in the Istanbul area and has the advantage of easy access by public transport. Security is also excellent with heavily armed Jandarma patrolling the picnic areas and most importantly, I have never seen a feral dog inside the park.
To get here by public transport take the metro from Taksim to the end of the line at 4. Levent then take a 42M bus direct to Bahçeköy bus station from where it is a 40 minute walk to the lake. Alternatively, take any bus towards Sariyer, get off at Büyükdere and get a taxi to take you direct to the picnic area. You will struggle to get a taxi back from the park.
A wide path goes right around the lake, this is used as a running track with convenient distance markers. Summer weekends should be avoided as the park is heaving with families picnicking, indeed it must be tough on the local bird life with the tree tops wreathed in smoke from numerous barbeques. A midweek visit in winter or early spring should produce hawfinch, nuthatch, treecreeper sp, great and middle spotted woodpecker. From around the third week of April semi-collared flycatcher arrive and can be seen around their nest holes in the tallest oak trees. In summer nightingale are common but there is a general lack of warblers.
Just outside the forest, close to the town of Bahçeköy is the wonderful Atatürk Arboretum. Entry is free, you just walk in, but at weekends the gates are closed and only those with season tickets are allowed entry. It is amazing that on a beautiful April weekend this lovely area is closed to casual visitors and nothing will get you past the humourless guard.
In April I have seen small flocks of tree pipit and golden oriole here and in mid May migrating flocks of bee-eater feed in the quiet dells. There is a very tall wooden observation tower at the back of the park but you will need nerves of steel to climb to the top.
Site 4 Lake Durusu and the Sazli valley (see map)
After much driving around the Black sea coast north of the city centre I stumbled upon this complex of lakes and water channels. You will need a car to work it properly but is worth a visit if you are driving from Europe into Anatolia or as a 40 minute drive from the main Ataturk Airport. From the main O-3 (E-80) motorway leave at junction K15, drive north signed to Hadimköy, after 6km you reach a large factory with wind turbines, another km further on turn right in front of the static tank (there is usually a display tank outside large military bases in Turkey) and drop down into the town. This town may be Hadimköy or Boyalik, the maps do not agree, in the centre turn east and head downhill then up to the large pinkish warehouse which acts as a start point for the area. Explore the large lakes and travel north through the small town of Durusu to view the reed-fringed lake with the same name. The road goes through extensive marshy areas which look good for Acrocephalus warblers but access on foot is limited. Lake Durusu is very extensive and well worth exploring for wintering duck and summer breeders, however, as in the rest of Turkey, hunting is common and wildfowl reclusive.
My favourite area is that 2km south of the village of Dursunköy (see map) where there is an extensive area of flooded forest, get here after dawn in summer and watch feeding black stork, any later in the day and there is too much disturbance.
North of lake Durusu one can drive to the town of Karaburun with its small harbour on the Black Sea. The vegetated slopes behind the harbour promise migrants in spring and autumn.
Site 5 Büyük Çekmece Lake
This as a very large lake well to the west of the city. From junction K14 (the next junction west from the previous site) head south and the road skirts the western edge of the lake. A telescope is essential as most birds are very distant, I found water birds rather thin in winter and spring though the southern end held 400+ med gulls at the end of March. The area with most potential is 2km east of the junction, take the minor road which tracks the motorway east until you cross under the motorway and find yourself at the southern end of a wide valley, follow the gravel track north into a maze of canals and waterways.
The Bosphorus must be the easiest place in the world to tick this newly split species. They travel quickly in flocks commuting up and down with no obvious pattern to the flow of traffic, hardly ever wheeling or settling. They can be seen all through the year with mid winter being the quietest time (up to 20 minutes between flocks) and mid summer the busiest (flocks constantly in view). To my eyes they are structurally very similar to Manx but perhaps more pot-bellied and longer necked. In strong sunshine in mid summer they are noticeably mid brown above not blackish. In 9 months I saw only one individual loafing behind a boat long enough to give decent views.
Up to 50 birds can be seen in winter along the Sazli valley, they had disappeared by mid June.
The brown, pale-breasted form is regular but seem to be dominated by great cormorant, they can usually be found on the more remote rocky shorelines.
Common on early autumn passage, I failed to locate any breeding birds despite much effort.
I failed to record any birds in the city from November to early April, but from mid April I was seeing them almost everyday. It would be interesting to investigate the true status in winter of this attractive dove.
For me, the most memorable bird of the city with their excited chattering and peerless flying skills. They arrive at the end of March and from mid April to late September are the most obvious bird of the dreary high-rise suburbs.
The oak woods at Bahçeköy must be one of the easiest places to see this species; without leaf cover they can be almost guaranteed on the briefest visit.
The common breeding warbler of open parkland.
Olive tree warbler
I failed to find this species anywhere around the city; I feel that this species is much scarcer and more local than often described.
Described as very scarce in Thrace by Green & Moorhouse, I discovered that they were reasonably easy in spring once I had found their preferred breeding habitat of the very tallest oak trees with plenty of open space at canopy level. The best site at Bahçeköy is the tallest oaks near the circular track between 1500m and 1800m (going clockwise). As with both collared and pied flycatcher, birds are much easier to see earlier in the spring, becoming elusive by the end of May and very difficult by summer.
A common summer bird in the Sazli valley.
A common bird in woodland, particularly in hornbeam at Bahçeköy. A mid April, mid-week walk around the circuit at Bahçeköy produced numerous pairs attracted down to the gravel track. You will struggle to see any birds at weekends or when the track is busy with walkers.
A common bird of scrubby field edges along the Sazli valley
Most visiting European birders fly into Antalya and then drive huge distances to take in birding sites. I suggest that Istanbul be used as your gateway to Turkey, that you spend a day or so exploring the sites mentioned and taking in some cultural attractions then use the efficient and relatively inexpensive domestic airline network to fly to Adana from where most of the central/southern sites can be covered in 7-10 days. I would then return to Istanbul or Ankara before flying on to Van or Trabzon to take in the delights of eastern Turkey. This approach saves up to four days of solid driving with its associated discomfort and danger.
Gosney, D. Finding Birds in Western Turkey
Green, I & Moorehouse, N. A birdwatcher’s guide to Turkey
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:
Birding Istanbul Oct 2004 – Jul 2005 by MJ Grunwell.