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 bird.
Originally published in Audubon Magazine.
“THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD,” field biologist Yakup Sasmaz said to me as we pulled into Kuyucuk, Turkey, population 350. We had arrived during afternoon rush hour, which meant the village’s sole rutted road was packed hoof-to-hoof with cattle traveling home from the fields. Men and women crisscrossed the herds, carrying buckets of milk that would soon be turned into a locally popular cheese.
Sasmaz and I crept along, looping around potholes and kicking up dust. We passed houses with tin roofs, squat buildings with sod roofs, and low walls that marked the boundaries of family compounds. After a few minutes, we reached the home where I’d be staying, a narrow structure that sat perpendicular to the road and rambled back toward the eastern horizon.
A man with a cleft chin and a salt-and-pepper mustache walked up to greet us. He wore a loose-fitting gray suit with a pressed black shirt. This was Turan Demir, the village’s elected chief and my host for this visit. He extended a rough hand to shake then showed me to the room where I’d be sleeping for the next two nights, a garage-sized living area with lace curtains and wide-timbered ceilings. Deep wooden benches piled high with pillows ran the length of two of the walls. A sword hung from a vertical support beam. Demir’s wife Birgul served us a hearty and spicy soup, which we ate with hunks of bread. We shared salad from a common plate.
We didn’t linger. The sun was low, and soon the bird activity would pick up on Lake Kuyucuk, a mile away. Sasmaz wanted to show me the bird banding station that KuzeyDoga Society, the environmental non-profit for which he works, operates during the spring and fall migrations.
I had come to Kuyucuk, 25 miles from the provincial capital of Kars, to check out an experiment with low-intensity ecotourism in an area that receives less than 1 percent of the nation’s travel revenues. Northeast Turkey sits at the junction of the Irano-Anatolian and Caucasus biodiversity hotspots, two of 34 threatened regions singled out by Conservation International for their unusual species richness and uniqueness. For birders, it’s a paradisiacal crossroads of migrants traveling to and from South Africa, Hungary, Israel, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, the Russian-Finnish borderlands, and numerous other parts of three continents. And it’s a haven for birds whose populations have crashed in Western Europe.
It’s also a region facing significant threats. In its push for economic development and energy independence, the Turkish government has been promoting massive construction projects, from hydroelectric dams in rural areas to the proposed Istanbul shopping mall that triggered the Taksim Square protests last spring. It has particularly focused on historically neglected areas like the northeast. Yet critics say Turkey lacks the tough laws needed to protect its environment from the impacts of growth. In May, for example, the English-language Hurriyet Daily News reported that Parliament had passed a law exempting billions of dollars worth of large infrastructure projects from environmental-impact assessments.
Cagan Sekercioglu, a Turkish-born, U.S.-educated ornithologist who founded KuzeyDoga, believes that visiting birders can help protect Northeast Turkey by creating an economic demand for unspoiled habitat. He has coined the term “village-based biocultural tourism” to describe his vision of small home-stay businesses in the communities adjacent to birding areas. Travelers would come primarily to watch the birds, and they would also enjoy local home-cooked meals and hospitality. With the revenue that birdwatchers bring, and the pleasure they receive, he’s hoping to garner both local and international support for his group’s conservation efforts.
When I first spoke with Sekercioglu a year ago, he called the northeast “quite a different world” from the rest of Turkey. He described the high plateau that reminds him of the American West; the alpine meadows and conifer forests; the dramatic rise of Mount Agri (Ararat), which peaks at almost 17,000 feet. He told me about the traditional villages, where homes are still heated with bricks of cattle dung, and where kindness to strangers is the rule.
Enticed by his descriptions, I booked a plane ticket to Kars, arriving during this year’s spring migration. I divided my five days between two rich birding areas where KuzeyDoga runs banding stations: Lake Kuyucuk, which is protected under an international treaty but still faces degradation if the closed Turkish-Armenian border reopens; and the Aras River Valley, which is even more lovely but also threatened by a proposed dam that could put it completely under water.
SASMAZ AND I ARRIVED at Lake Kuyucuk just as the sun was setting. The wide, watery expanse seemed like a shallow cauldron of fertility: an open lake brimming with noisy frogs and aquatic plants, surrounded by reed beds of different heights and, beyond that, montane meadow. From the lake rose a 650-foot-long manmade island, constructed from an old road bed and planted with birch and willow to provide breeding and nesting ground safe from humans and mammalian predators. At the edge of the property, two small buildings stood side-by-side: a stone dormitory where volunteers slept in bunk beds; and a portable white trailer that doubled as a kitchen and a banding station. There was no electricity: Nighttime banding was done by kerosene and headlamp.
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.
IT WASN’T UNDER AFTER KUYUCUK that I finally met Sekercioglu, the 38-year-old University of Utah assistant professor whose conservation work inspired my trip. From the moment we shook hands, it was easy to get swept up by his commitment and charisma. Sekercioglu has bearish good looks and a matching lope—“in all respects unbirdlike,” journalist and former classmate Elif Batuman once called him—and the kind of passion that deters him from biting his tongue even when he knows he should. He ranks among the world’s top birders with a life list of 6,162. In May, the United Kingdom’s Princess Anne presented him with a Whitley Gold Award for his work in Turkey, making him the only two-time winner of the prestigious nature-conservation prize. The same month, National Geographic named him a 2013 Risk Taker.
Studying to become a tropical ornithologist, Sekercioglu didn’t expect to return to Turkey for work. Then, in 2001, he led a butterfly-collecting trip for his former undergraduate advisor, Harvard biologist Naomi Pierce. His team found seven species new to science, including butterflies that looked virtually identical but had radically different genetics. “This showed us how much cryptic biodiversity there is still to be discovered in Turkey,” he says. The northeast, in particular, lured him in. “When I saw the richness of the region, I decided I wanted to work here and I wanted to study birds. This is the wilder part of Turkey—it’s less impacted [by development].” The northeast was also virtually unstudied: the local university had no bird, mammal, reptile, or amphibian experts, he says, and there wasn’t even a basic bird checklist for the region.
On return visits, he learned what an extraordinary birding area the northeast really was. First came the 2004 count on Lake Kuyucuk. Then, 80 miles to the south, Sekercioglu discovered the Aras River Valley, a riparian oasis in the middle of a vast arid steppe, between Kars and the provincial capital of Igdir. The ornithologist learned that Aras’ lush wetlands provided a sheltered refuge for breeding, migrating, and wintering birds—the valley is lower and warmer than the surrounding East Anatolian Plateau, which can reach 40 degrees below zero. He opened a banding station at Aras in 2006, the year before he founded KuzeyDoga. Since then, staff and volunteers have banded more than 45,000 birds there, and identified 249 species.
We drove to the Aras Valley. In the village of Yukari Ciyrikli, we stopped at the home of Zeynep and Esat Celik, where I would be staying. Unlike Kuyucuk—where I bathed outdoors with a washcloth and pitcher and used an outhouse—my accommodations in Yukari Ciyrikli were modern and included a strong hot shower. The village’s agricultural fertility, and the generosity of its ethnic-Azeri residents, would be evident during our breakfasts, when Zeynep would serve her homemade apricot and eggplant jams, and during a family barbecue that featured outsized quantities of local lamb.
Sekercioglu and I walked a few minutes beyond the village and along a levee, then crossed a creek to the banding station. High striped mountains ringed us on all sides. Poppies carpeted the high ground and cuckoo calls filled the air.
The site was stunning. Vulnerable too. Sekercioglu’s biggest nightmare these days is a proposed irrigation and hydroelectric dam that would put the entire bird habitat, along with Yukari Ciyrikli and three other farming villages, under 150 feet of water. Turkey’s Minister of Forestry and Water Affairs, Veysel Eroglu, has said that his country has tapped only 20 percent of its hydropower potential, and “the rest of the water is going to waste.” Sekercioglu says the Tuzluca Dam would not only trigger an “ecological massacre,” but is also unnecessary. There are more efficient ways, he says, to water crops and generate power. The ornithologist has made it his mission to save what he calls the Aras River Bird Paradise—with little support, he says, from overworked international conservation groups.
“There’s enough infrastructure and awareness that this could be a fantastic new ecotourism destination,” Sekercioglu says. “Or the government could destroy the whole place.”
AT THE ARAS BANKING STATION, I met new volunteers and greeted familiar ones. Mike Ford, the South African, had also made the trip from Kuyucuk to Aras, arriving shortly after we did.
That afternoon, one of the Turkish volunteers came to the trailer and handed Ford a cloth bag. Ford pulled out a rosy starling, and then smiled. “Complete with the pretty-boy haircut,” he said.
To see this creature up-close is to set aside every preconception we North Americans have about starlings. Their bodies and bills are a subtle dusty pink, set against a shiny purple-black head and matching feathers. Breeding males sport a crest that looks like a cross between a pompadour and a quiff. Imagine a Little Richard impersonator with a tastefully restrained fashion palette, and you’ll start to get a rough picture. Despite their reliable presence here, most Western birders have never seen rosy starlings, which migrate between South Asia and Russia and generally don’t venture into Western Europe. When Sekercioglu took a 23-day birding tour of Turkey in 2005, the only place he saw rosy starlings was in the Aras Valley.
Ford went through the standard cataloguing procedure: determining the age and sex of the starling, measuring its feather lengths and body fat, and clamping onto its leg a lightweight ring that will help researchers track its life history if it’s recaptured. He took the starling outside and held it aloft so we could photograph it. Then he released it. “You’re going the wrong way!” he called. “Russia’s that way!”
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.
SIDEBAR: 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, https://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, a gracious and reasonably priced boutique hotel.