Journey into the marshes — birdwatching in Cappadocia

27th, 2013
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travel“The marshes cover 21,000 hectares,” announces Atalay Atasoy, “And 301 different species of bird have been counted here over the years.”

We are sitting on the porch of the Sultan Pansiyon in the small village of Ovaçiftlik, west of Yahyalı on the outskirts of Cappadocia. With two friends I’ve come to visit the Sultan Marshes (Sultan Sazlığı) and our heads are full of the thought of flamingoes. Atalay is a stocky man who looks more like a prize-fighter than an authority on birds but he knows his market well.

“I remember you,” he says to one of the friends, and, sure enough, she had indeed been here once before, albeit some 15 or more years ago. They reminisce politely about that previous visit before we move on to the nitty-gritty of how we are to get to the birds.

“You can go by boat or by jeep,” Atalay tells us, “But you will probably see more birds from the jeep.”

To be honest this news is slightly disappointing. As much a boat as a bird-lover, I had fondly imagined us drifting through the reed beds with flamingoes on either side of us. But already my friend is homing in on the price. It sounds quite a lot of money (150 euros for two hours). “Last time I came I only saw a few birds and a lot of water snakes,” she is telling Atalay. “We saw the flamingoes at the end. Otherwise I would have been very disappointed.”

“You won’t be disappointed this time!” he replies. “If you are, you can have your money back.”

The next thing we know we’re piling into his little jeep along with a great deal of very expensive bird-watching equipment. We drive barely a meter down the road, then stop and get out again. Atalay busies himself setting up a telescope. “There!” he says. “Long-eared owl.”

I peer suspiciously through the eyepiece and am absolutely thrilled to find that not only am I seeing a long-eared owl for the first time, but that I’m doing so through a telescope so powerful that the bird might be sitting right in front of me. In reality, of course, it’s nestling in a fork in a tree so far away that we have difficulty picking it out with our naked eyes.

“There, you’ve had your money’s worth already,” Atalay says and I’m inclined to think he’s right. What could be more handsome than this stately grey bird, sitting as still as a statue, its nest in the tree right beside it. It’s a great start to our safari and immediately our party is in high spirits.

Off we drive into the marshes themselves and I’m reminded at once of what a boon it is to be out looking for birds with an expert. It’s not just that he has the eagle eye that spots what we would have missed completely but that he knows this territory and its feathered residents as well as I know my own backyard.

“Red-backed shrike,” he recites: “Lesser grey shrike. Yellow wagtail.” And with each sighting he sets the telescope sight for us so that we can see exactly what it is we’re looking for before attempting to find it for ourselves through the binoculars.

The Sultan Marshes are one of Turkey’s 13 Ramsar sites, wetlands of international importance that are supposed to be especially cared for to protect their particular character (the others, often labeled “bird paradises” (kuş cenneti), are the Akyatan Lagoon near Adana, the Gediz Delta near İzmir, the Göksu Delta near Silifke, the Kızılırmak Delta near Samsun, Kızören Obruğu lake near Konya, Lake Burdur, Lake Kuş (Manyas), Lake Kuyucuk near Kars, Lake Meke near Karaman, Lake Seyfe near Kırşehir, Lake Uluabat near Bursa and the Yumurtalık Lagoon near Adana). The marshes form part of an area of the Develi plain south of Kayseri that also features a saline lake, meadows and small islands set in a lake. The bird-watchers aside, it’s an area used by pastoralists who bring their sheep and cattle to graze here. The reeds are also harvested as thatch for export, as evidenced by the tepee-shaped reedstacks that line the road down to the marshes.

It would be hard to imagine a more glorious setting than this, with beautiful Erciyes Dağı (Mt. Erciyes) soaring up on the horizon, still just about snowcapped despite the mild winter, and the closer we get to the water, the busier life becomes on the birding front. I have trouble keeping up with Atalay as he reels off the species in front of us. Garganey, coot and red-crested pochard. Whiskered tern and white-winged black tern. Ruff, black-winged stilt, marsh sandpiper and three unexpected red-necked phalaropes. Marsh harrier and long-legged buzzard. Most impressive because most conspicuous perhaps, Goliath heron, squacco heron and little egret.

The one bird that is conspicuous by its absence is the flamingo. “You’d need three or four hours to be sure of seeing them,” Atalay tells us, and even then I suspect that you’d need a dollop of luck too. Of course we’ve reduced our chances anyway by showing up mid-afternoon when, as any birder worth their salt could have told us, we should have been here at dawn or dusk to catch the birds at their most active.

As we’re bumping our way back to the pansiyon a little head pops out from a burrow and stares intently at us. It’s a yer sincap (ground squirrel, know locally as a gelengi), a small mammal that used to be common all over the Anatolian plain 40 or so years ago but is now increasingly rare. We didn’t get to see the local sansar (marten) that, in photos, looks rather like a red panda, but we’re all agreed that the squirrel more than makes up for it.

We’re all agreed, too, that we’ve had a fantastic afternoon in the marshes. “Who would have thought that birds could be so interesting?” messages one of my two non-birdwatcher friends. Who indeed?

Where else to go birdwatching in Turkey

Turkey is located in a perfect position on the migration routes between Europe and Africa but most of the premium birdwatching locations are difficult to get to without private transport. Easiest to reach, perhaps, are the lake locations.

But even if your visit will be strictly urban, you can still squeeze in a bit of twitching. One of the big treats of a visit to İstanbul in spring or autumn is seeing the great clouds of storks heading south to winter in the warmth or north to breed in the relative cool. Raptor-lovers also gather at Rumeli Feneri to observe birds of prey on their way south to Africa every autumn; in spring they make a pilgrimage to Çamlıca Hill or Toygar Hill in Beykoz to watch the return journey. As many as 40,000 lesser spotted eagles have been known to pass overhead in one season, along with smaller numbers of steppe eagles, marsh harriers and buzzards.

For those who like to take their birdwatching really easy, it’s impossible to miss the many storks who nest every summer on top of the Byzantine aqueduct in Selçuk just in from the Aegean coast.

Over in southeastern Turkey the one place that will be on most bird-lovers’ itineraries will probably be Birecik, last home of the rare (and ugly) northern bald ibis and the setting for a captive breeding program that is attempting to rebuild a population reduced to almost nothing by the introduction of pesticides.


Sultan Pansiyon: Tel: 0352-658 5549. Doubles and one single available right by the entrance to the marshes.

How to get there

Hourly buses run from Kayseri to Ovaçiftlik. It’s a one-kilometer walk from the road to the pansiyon.

Resource: Today’s Zaman

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