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.
It wasn't until 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 banding 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!"