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.
Each bird that arrived at the trailer was more distinctive than the previous one. I watched Aras' youngest volunteer, a 14-year-old villager named Berkan Demir, hold and then release a common kingfisher, with its moppish crown and bold azure-and-rust color scheme. The team also banded a hoopoe, which sported an outrageous crown of orange-and-black feathers that makes it appear as if it's carrying a butterfly on its head. The hoopoe appears in Sufi poetry as the leader of a pilgrimage to find God, as well as the Koran and the Torah. In a nationwide election in 2008, Israelis voted it their national bird.
One evening at dusk, I joined a volunteer on patrol. We walked beyond the muddiest wetlands, toward a field of poplars and apricot trees, when a distress call drew us to one of the mist nets. The tangled creature was a foot long and brilliant, with four distinct shades of blue that transitioned to black at the edges. Its light brown back looked like a cape. Since neither of us was qualified to handle birds, we fetched Ford, who identified it as a European roller. "The most beautiful bird of all," he said, delicately removing the animal. Later, Sekercioglu told me that the farm-dwelling rollers were once widespread but have suffered a population decline because of habitat loss, hunting, and pesticides. They are now categorized as near threatened.
With such dramatic birds to see up-close, I could have happily stayed at the Aras banding station. But Sekercioglu insisted there was more to see. So he and I, along with Berkan Demir, got in my rental car and drove to the foot of Mount Agri, reputed to be the resting place of Noah's Ark. We passed through low-slung Kurdish villages from which utility poles rose, topped by giant white-stork nests. Volcanic rock lined the hillsides. We pulled over to watch some small colorful birds called bee-eaters perched on a power line. Berkan noticed that one of them had different coloring. On the sides of its face were blue ovals bisected by black eye stripes. Sekercioglu identified it as a blue-cheeked bee-eater and explained that, to his knowledge, this was the only intact breeding colony in the country. A second colony in the southeast had been destroyed by dam construction.
I enjoyed spending time with Berkan, who was both playful and dignified, and who kissed my hand when we first met in a traditional sign of respect. KuzeyDoga's staff and volunteers have adopted him as one of their own, putting him to work logging measurement data and answering his breathless questions about whether they've ever seen this or that bird. He studies his field guide religiously and has mastered the art of removing birds from nets. He sighted the first black-winged kite ever identified in this vicinity.
Watching his enthusiasm gave me hope that, whether or not the dam is built and his village is inundated, there will be someone in the next generation fighting for bird conservation in Northeast Turkey. When Berkan was younger, he imagined growing up to become a police officer. Now, at 14, he wants to be an ornithologist. After he told me this, he turned to Sekercioglu. "Like you," he said.
Making the Trip
Getting There: You'll need to fly to Istanbul, and then connect to a flight to Kars. Turkish, United, and Delta Airlines fly from five U.S. cities to Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. Visitors need a passport valid for 90 days after arrival, with enough blank space inside for entry and exit stamps. Advanced visas are not required; when you arrive at Istanbul's Ataturk airport, you'll pay $20 for an entry visa.
From Ataturk Airport, Turkish Airlines offers non-stop flights to Kars. If you plan to spend some time in Istanbul, you can also fly to Kars from Istanbul's Sabiha Gokcen Airport on Turkish Airlines or Atlasjet.
Getting around: You'll need a car to get around Kars region. Reserving online is not an option. The non-profit KuzeyDoga can book rental cars, along with home stays in Kuyucuk and Yukari Ciyrikli. Contact KuzeyDoga through its website, http://www.kuzeydoga.org.
Thirty miles from Kars, be sure to visit the ruins of the medieval city of Ani. Consider spending that night in Kars, a small city of Russian-style buildings. One now houses the Kar's Otel (http://www.karsotel.com), a gracious and reasonably priced boutique hotel.
Safety: The U.S. State Department has no active travel warnings or alerts about Turkey. The Kars region did not experience mass protests like the ones at Istanbul's Taksim Square last spring.
What You Can Do
Want to help stop the Tuzluca Dam? You can sign the petition at http://www.savearas.org. Even more effective would be a personal letter. Write it on paper and post to Minister of Forestry and Water Affairs Prof. Dr. Veysel Eroglu, Sogutozu Cad. No. 14/E, Ankara, Turkey. There's a sample letter, as well as other information you can use, at the website above. In your letter, be sure to mention the province (Igdir), the village (Yukari Ciyrikli), and the district (Tuzluca) in that order.