Journey to Turkey

Photograph by Alexander Christie-Miller
Photograph by Alexander Christie-Miller
Photograph by Alexander Christie-Miller
Photograph by Alexander Christie-Miller

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.

By Barry Yeoman
Published: 09/04/2013

"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.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Barry Yeoman

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Be sure to keep track of the

Be sure to keep track of the progress you are making each week. Start a weight loss diary, making note of your weight on a weekly basis. List the foods you eat in a daily food diary that is part of your journal. Writing down what you are eating will help you remember to make healthier choices.

This was a gorgeous article:

This was a gorgeous article: so extensively reported, perfectly told, and beautifully written. What an amazing experience for you, Barry, and now for your readers as well.

I've never been particularly

I've never been particularly interested in birds, but after reading your article, my interest in village-based biocultural tourism is now officially piqued! And I learned two new words: paradisiacal and quiff :)

I have fond memories from my

I have fond memories from my field visit at both L. Kuyucuk and Aras bird banding stations, Eastern Turkey (Turkiye). That was in Spring 2009. I spent the entire season there as a volunteer bird-ringer. It was the first-time ever visit by a Kenyan ringer there.

I learned a lot, banded and bagged many new bird species to my world's list! I become a celebrity there as all the news channels, print media houses interviewed me! It was overwhelming but for a good and worthwhile course - BIRD EDUCATION & CONSERVATION.

True to your words, Turkish people's hospitality is out of this world. You will be surely amazed by the many cups of teas you will have per day. I thought we "Kenyans" having been ruled by the British, we loved the tea culture, but to my surprise .... Turkish people were many steps ahead of us ..... I even learned to play the local banjo, speck, sing and dance Turkish moves .... it was an eye-opener, a great cultural exchange visit and overall it opened my deeper heart!!!

Thanks and regards, J.K. NDUNG'U

Beautifully written, felt

Beautifully written, felt like I was out at the lake at sunset!

loved the story !

loved the story !

What an amazing article - a

What an amazing article - a tapestry weaving the birds, the culture, the threats, and the heroic efforts of the people together. Barry always makes you feel you have been there, sipping the tea, watching the birds, hearing the wind. A compelling case for a must-not-be-lost treasure.

Wonderful account. The

Wonderful account. The descriptions of the birds make me wish I could fly.

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