Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Turkey day 2 - Ağri Daği - no valley too deep, no mountain too high

Our second day (21st June) began with a rush - we found out that Turkey didn't discover the advantages of Summer Time, and when we woke up at 04:00 there was good light already... We drove from Iğdir via Aralik to the small village of Yenidoğan ( 39.775916° N  44.380396° E). In the plains below the village there were many larks, including Horned and Lesser Short-toed, Finsch's Wheatear and singing Tawny Pipits.

Tawny Pipit

Our main target bird Caspian Snowcock - this high-altitude chicken is difficult to see in Van region, but Emin told me it's possible... Ağri Daği, AKA Mt. Ararat, is one of the few sites in Van region for this species. This is the highest peak in the Middle East, at 5104 m. A very impressive peak indeed. Climbing it reminded me of the period I spent up in the Himalaya some years ago.

We started ascending from the village which is at about 1750 m. The sky was grey and it was very cold. In the village we had a male Semi-collared Flycatcher. As we started walking it began drizzling, and then raining, and then raining hard. Climbing the mountain with my heavy camera gear in the rain was not much fun. After not too long we decided to descend back down to the car - the weather really looked grim, but then the rain stopped for a while and we decided to give it a go. Above the village there's nice habitat with scattered rosebushes - good for White-throated Robins and of course Black-headed Buntings. BHB were possibly the commonest birds on our trip, and their song was for sure the soundtrack of the trip.
In this beautiful valley, and especially above the tree line, at about 2000 m, there were many breeding pairs of Iranias, including a nice nest we found with eggs.

White-throated Robin

Light conditions were quite awful. I had to shoot on ultra-high iso. Thank god for Topaz DeNoise... 
There were lots of good birds above the tree line - Ring Ouzels and Mistle Thrushes, one brief male Armenian Stonechat, saw our first Alpine Choughs etc. At this altitude we had quite many Western Rock Nuthatches. They look so different compared to ours here in Israel. Is this ssp. rupicola?

Western Rock Nuthatch

The next stretch in our climb was pretty tough, scrambling up a narrow, boulder-strewn gorge. finally we climbed up to a nice valley, that had many birds in and around it, at about 2300 m. For some moments the clouds opened up a bit and we could partly see the peak, but soon it became dark and very wet again... 

Present in good numbers at this altitude were these total gems - Red-fronted Serins. They are rare winter visitors to N Israel, so for us they were really special. Such fantastic little birds, they allowed very close views and if light was better I could have had some winning images... but I cannot complain. 

Red-fronted Serins

Female in the center


Male (left) and female (right)


Mixed with them were some Twite: 

Rock Buntings are also common everywhere in E Turkey:

From 2300 m and up we started seeing Radde's Accentors. They were feeding young, and many males were still singing. It took me some time to realize that their song is almost identical to that of Black Redstart. It was very windy at this altitude, so the recording didn't come out very impressive I'm afraid:

Radde's Accentor

A pair of lammergeiers patrolled over the valley. At one moment Amir was pretty knackered and lay down in the grass to rest for a short while. One of the Lammergeiers made a quick U-turn and came down to check Amir out - 90 kg aren't too heavy for them I reckon... Also a pair of Golden Eagles breeds somewhere there - they were cruising around too. I am sure that their main food is the abundant Asia Minor Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus xanthoprymnus) - pretty numerous in the highlands.


On the big cliffs big flocks of choughs were seen - mainly Alpine but also some Red-billed Choughs. At about 2700 m we had a pair of Alpine Accentors, and then we just climbed and climbed as much as we could in the steep gorge, stopping every few minutes under a boulder to shelter from the rain, and also to catch our breath - the altitude certainly affected us. I played snowcock calls in full volume, we scanned the cliffs and both slopes very hard. At one time I heard a bird responding - my heart almost leaped out of my chest - but it was too high above the cliffs, in the plateaus above the herd-line, and we were unable to see it. Apart for this one-time vocal encounter we didn't see any snowcocks. But the experience of being so high up, the thin air, mighty peaks surrounding us, was really powerful.

 Looking back down the valley, from about 3100 m... 

 High-altitude birding - Gidon

Slightly disappointed by not connecting well enough with the snowcock, but very pleased with all the other good birds we saw, we started descending back. We climbed up to a grassy plateau, where walking down was much easier than in the rocky valley. And of course as we started descending the sun came out and the weather became great. Fo the first time we had stunning views of the peak:

Fewer birds were seen on the grassy plateau, mainly because of the very intensive presence of large herds, their herders carrying hunting rifles, surrounded by mighty dogs, so obviously wildlife is scarce in the area heavily grazed. Still we had quite many larks and some more Ring Ouzels.

Eurasian Skylark - ssp. armenica

Horned Lark - ssp. penicillata, male

Horned Lark, ssp. penicillata, female

When we got back down to the plains, totally exhausted by the long and tough trek, the view of the two peaks - Büyük (big) Ağri Daği on the right and Küçük (little) Ağri Daği was breathtaking.

To conclude, it was a great day filled with quality birding, but failing to see our main target bird was disappointing. For those who want to see snowcocks at this site, you need to climb much higher than we did, mainly to avoid the herds and their herders, that are a big problem for wildlife up there. One alternative is to start walking very early from Yenidoğan and climb up the grassy plateau rather than up the gorge (there are several walking trails used by the herds climbing up from the village), and reach about 3500-3700 m, above the cliffs and higher than the herds. Birding along the walk up would be less rewarding, but chances for snowcock would be higher. Another alternative would be to climb up from Yenidoğan and camp at about 3500 m, on the grassy slopes. I guess chances for snowcock are best early in the morning, before the herds reach up there. I know nothing about safety issues in that region, i.e. how safe it would be to camp up there. Doing it the way we did offers good birding opportunities up the gorge, but chances for snowcock are lower.

We spent the night at Golden Hill Hotel in Doğubayazit - excellent hotel!

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