Bird-watching takes off in İstanbul

As the weather begins to really warm up, certain winged visitors are arriving in »»

As the weather begins to really warm up, certain winged visitors are arriving in Turkey; traveling all the way from Africa, these winged visitors are in fact predatory birds that enter the country from the southern province of Hatay.

Those who want to meet -- or at least catch a glimpse of -- these visitors should waste no time in heading over to the renowned “hairpin bend” in İstanbul’s Sarıyer district. These are the final days in which you can actually go and see these predatory birds. If you don’t have the time now, you can try heading out in the fall to either Çamlıca or Toygar Tepe to see the same birds.

We heard that there was some activity near Garipçe, where the third bridge spanning the Bosporus will be built, that had people grabbing their binoculars and cameras and heading over there. We were curious about what all of this activity could mean, and so we struck up a conversation with one of the people headed off to join the crowds. This person told us “Let’s meet up at the hairpin bend in Sarıyer.” But what did that mean exactly? What sort of designation was this? Later we found out that while the hairpin bend might not mean much for most people in İstanbul, it is a very significant designation for experienced bird watchers in this city. As it turns out, a particular hairpin bend about 700 meters down the road from Koç University is just about one of the best places from which to watch birds in İstanbul during the spring. In fact, tourists interested in birds flock here from all over the place, France, England, the Netherlands, Spain and even America, all in the pursuit of some good bird-watching and memorable photographs. Despite this flurry of interest from abroad, bird-watching is not a very popular hobby in Turkey; it is estimated that out of a population of around 75 million there are only around 2,500 bird watchers. By contrast, there are an estimated 500 thousand bird watchers in the Netherlands, which has a total population that is less than that of İstanbul’s estimated population of 17 million. In England, which has a population of around 62 million, there are approximately 1 and a half million bird watchers. But in any case, our subject today does not concern numbers, but rather the birds themselves. And not just any birds, but predatory birds!

İstanbul’s Bosporus, aka the international bird highway

Let’s take the imperial eagle for example. This is a favorite of bird-watchers, a creature they are most anxious to see. There are some bird watchers who will wait from morning until night, perhaps even weeks on end, to see this bird. The same goes for the erne. One of the predatory birds with the longest wing span among these birds is the condor. Bird-watcher Akdoğan Özkan, who has written for a variety of different nature and travel magazines, says: “Whenever I see a condor, I say to myself, ‘alright, he’s going to grab me up and take me away.’ It is a wonderful feeling, it cannot be described.” Özkan, who describes Istanbul’s Bosporus as being a veritable “international bird highway,” has been bird-watching now for 2 years. The person who got him interested in this hobby is one of the founders of the İstanbul Bird Watchers Society (İKGT), a man who tells us in great detail about bird-watching, Cemil Gezgin. There is no doubt there are very few bird-watchers who are not familiar with Gezgin. In fact, when we ask birders about information about certain birds they are observing or waiting to see, they often tell us “actually, you might want to ask Gezgin, he knows the most on this question.” In this end, we did manage to meet up with Gezgin in Sarıyer, and got lots of information on this topic.

As Gezgin explains to us, the reason birds choose the Bosporus in İstanbul over which to migrate has much to do with thermal flows in the air. “Birds with large wing spans do prefer to migrate over the Bosporus. This is because what they are looking for is a way to expend minimum energy and make maximum progress. When the ground warms up, thermal heat is created, and it rises upward. These migratory birds take advantage of the whirlpool in the air created by this thermal heat, and then use it to soar further distances,” says Gezgin. “So with two pieces of land so close to each other like the Bosporus, the conditions are what the birds are looking for, and they tend to fly over it during migration.” While large-winged birds burn up the 100 grams of fat they store in their bodies in just five days when they are flying and having to flap their wings, they are able to fly for 20 days burning the same amount when they soar. So when these birds fly over the open seas, they can actually burn too much of their fat, and end up dying. All of this helps make spots such as the Bosporus in İstanbul so popular for larger predatory birds, it also explains why hundreds of kinds of bird species can be seen migrating over these straits.

Coming from the Netherlands for some bird-watching

One of the many tourists who have come to spot birds at the Sarıyer site is Dutch Nico Creemers. He has spent 30 years traveling to a variety of countries all over the world to see birds. He says “I am able to see thousands of types of birds here while I might spend hours in the Netherlands just waiting to see one type. But I do not understand why it is that Turks are not more interested in this hobby.” Another bird-watcher and avid photographer here is Berrin Akyıldırım, who has been involved in bird-watching for many years. It was during a seminar on bird-watching she attended in university that her interest in this activity was awakened, eventually going on to become a founding member of the İKGT. After the seminar, which was 12 years ago, she did a field work project to find out where birds could be best observed in Turkey. She also took a leading role in founding different bird-watching groups created in various regions of Turkey, in the publishing of two birding books and with the establishment of a bird-watching project that follows the migration of birds over the Bosporus. Akyıldırım knows all the different bird species there are to know, and in fact, has taken so many photographs of birds that these days she is focusing more on butterfly photos.

Photography’s role in bird-watching

Akyıldırım says she believes the role played by photography in this hobby is important. “There are around 400 members in the İKGT, but despite the fact that Trakuş [another birding organization] was formed later, we reached a full 2,000 members since it was also a photography site,” she said. “People first tend to watch birds because they are interested in taking good photographs. They take the photos, and then send e-mails to the site to find out what sort of bird they have photographed. Then they start looking into more rarely seen birds and want to take their photographs as well. And in this way, they start learning about bird types and birding in general.”

The first bird-watching groups

The first official bird-watching group to start in Turkey was the İKGT. Members of the group meet every second Wednesday and share their observations and discoveries with one another. As for Trakuş, it is the first internet site which publishes bird photographs taken all over Turkey. There are currently 40 thousand photographs of birds on the site and a plethora of information on birds.

3rd Bosporus bridge will have negative effect on bird migration

Ahmet Karataş (professor of zoology, Niğde University): Due to its suitable flow of air and weather, the Bosporus is a perfect place for bird migration. It is the most important point of transit for birds migrating from Africa to western Asia and Europe. These migrations are best observed in the fall from Çamlıca and Toygar Tepe and in the spring from near Garipçe. But these points also tend to overlap with where bridges are located, and bridges have a negative effect on migrations. When we watch birds from the top of the Çamlıca hill, we see that they like to fly not over crowded areas, but rather over forest lands. So a third bridge built over Garipçe, as well as wind energy will have a strong influence on the flow of air in the area. Also, forest lands will be reduced. A full 90 percent of predatory birds use this migratory path, meaning that 90 percent of them will be affected. Also, predatory birds prefer not to migrate at night, instead staying in forested areas during that time. The bridge will also mean some destruction to the Belgrad Forest lands as well as the area around Terkos. So the places where these birds can rest will be reduced.

Sold their guns and bought cameras

The founder of the Trakuş site is Serhat Tigrel, who says that so far, there have been 463 species of birds sighted in Turkey. He himself is someone who has been in love with nature since his childhood. Tigrel is also a former hunter. He used to fulfill his interest in nature by hunting animals, but now says he invites other hunters to go bird-watching. “I am 57 years old. When I was younger, you really had to be a hunter in order to explore nature. There was no hobby like bird-watching. Anyway, when I would go hunting, I would spend more time getting angry with the other hunters out there than hunting myself,” he explained. “I would get frustrated by things like people shooting 10 birds, while the law only allowed two. But nowadays, you do not have to be a hunter to get involved with nature. Of the around 2,000 members of our site, around 400 were hunters. Once we learned about bird-watching we sold our hunting rifles and bought binoculars and cameras. We believe that rather than capturing birds by killing them, it is important to capture their poses in nature. We do not even want to remember those old days of hunting. Other hunters should try just once to actually do some bird-watching and take some photographs, and they will know what I mean.”