Journey to Turkey
Situated in one of the world's most important migratory bird flyways, some of Turkey's wildest places face threats from massive construction projects. Trying to provide a better way, one visionary biologist aims to put his country on the birding map.
Almost as soon as we arrived, the most experienced of the volunteer banders came striding toward us with purpose. Mike Ford, a 71-year-old retired businessman from South Africa, had been watching the sunset when he saw 130 bank swallows land all at once in the 20-foot-tall mist nets that surrounded the lake. "The flock was circling overhead," he told us. "And suddenly they decided to choose that particular spot to roost for the night."
Sasmaz and the volunteers threw on hip waders and walked through the marshy edge of the lake, beckoning me to join them and watch. (Untrained visitors are not allowed to handle the birds.) The moon was almost full, and the last of the sunset seemed to curve 180 degrees around the lake. The frog chorus grew louder as the water rose to our shins and mud gripped the bottoms of our waders. At the nets, the trained handlers carefully untangled the birds, popped them into cloth bags, and shuttled them to the trailer for what would turn out to be hours of banding, measuring, and cataloguing.
It wasn't until the next morning, when I could explore in full daylight, that I gained a full appreciation for Kuyucuk's bird life. Sekercioglu told me what it was like when he arrived nearly a decade ago. That fall he counted 40,000 birds over less than a square mile on a single day. This included 20,000 ruddy shelducks, or about one-tenth of the world's population. Huge rafts of birds, huddled so close that they touched one another, covered swaths of the lake. He has since helped KuzeyDoga identify 229 of Turkey's 471 species in and around Kuyucuk, including five breeding pairs of the globally endangered white-headed duck, whose males sport a distinctive blue bill. Based on the numbers and rarity of the birds that use the lake, and its important role in their life cycles, Kuyucuk earned a listing under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty designed to guarantee the conservation and "wise use" of important wetlands.
But Ramsar status doesn't completely protect the lake: It's located just off a main road between Kars and the Armenian border, which is 17 miles away and has been closed since 1993. Sekercioglu has no position on whether the border should remain closed. But he worries that if it does re-open, it could trigger enough development and road construction to stress the large bird populations. He's been lobbying to move the main highway away from the lake, so far to no avail.
The spring migration is fairly quiet at Kuyucuk compared to the fall, but the array of birdlife was impressive nonetheless. Sasmaz took me to the water's edge to see the ruddy shelducks, white-headed creatures with cinnamon plumage accented in black and shiny green, bobbing their heads underwater to feed on the plant life. Ruddy shelducks live in monogamous pairs, and their reputation for suicidal loyalty has earned them the Turkish nickname angut, which means "fool" or "idiot." When a hunter kills one of the ducks, its mate will circle the shooter rather than fleeing.
We hiked to an observation tower. On the way, Sasmaz paused to point out a rapid, metallic call that sounded like the rattling of keys. He pointed his spotting scope at a thistle sticking up from the meadow. Perched on top was a corn bunting. A plump brown farmland bird--sometimes called the "fat bird of the barley"--the corn bunting is one of many species whose populations have collapsed in Western Europe as a result of agricultural intensification, which involves ripping up hedgerows, plowing meadows, harvesting grain more efficiently, using more pesticides, and sowing on a less bird-friendly timetable. The Kuyucuk area, with traditional farming methods and fields of organic barley, provides a more hospitable habitat for the bunting. It was one of several farmland species we saw that day, including skylarks and Northern lapwings, all of them declining in Western Europe.
When we returned to the banding trailer, Sasmaz set up the scope again, this time facing the lake. We watched a colony of glossy ibises, two-foot-tall birds with coppery bodies and down-curved bills, feeding on insects and the lake's plentiful frogs. Kuyucuk is an important migration stop for the ibises, which have seen their range shrink because of the draining of wetlands. "I love them," said volunteer Damla Beton, a 33-year-old biologist who runs a small bird-conservation project in Cyprus and was here to get banding experience. "When the sun changes, they glow differently."
The best birds were still to come, in the more verdant Aras River Valley. For me, the highlight of Kuyucuk was a walk I took later that day, by myself, along the village road. It seemed that the presence of a stranger triggered the hospitable impulses of an entire community. As I passed the village hall, a man ran outside and called, "Cay?" ("Tea?") By the time I reached the front door, he was already carrying a tray with two steaming glasses; we drank together without a common language. Outside the mosque, children played soccer, and the teenager supervising them wanted to practice his English. We chatted, and he promised to track me down once afternoon prayers were over so I could see the mosque's interior. True to his word, twenty minutes later he found me inside a grocery store, where I had been beckoned to join a dozen local men around an unlit wood stove. After viewing the mosque, I headed back to the house where I was staying. The chief met me at the driveway and motioned me across the street to a neighbor's home. "Cay?" he asked.