text by Ric Else and Hazel Watson
Before joining the Besh Barmag counting team from mid November to the end of the month, we weren’t really sure what to expect at such a late stage in the migration season. We had been closely following the daily count data on Trektellen from the beginning of September, seeing the vast numbers and incredible diversity of birds being recorded each day, and we couldn’t help wondering: how long could this go on? Would there still be any birds left to count by mid November?
We need not have worried – this time of year turned out to be just as varied and interesting as the preceding weeks had been. Every day was different, and almost every day provided something remarkable. There were far too many memorable migration moments to mention them all, but for this blog post we’ve picked out a few particularly unforgettable birding experiences from our three weeks at the bottleneck.
We see plenty of Great Cormorants back home in the UK, and admittedly don’t often pay them much attention, but the immensely long, snaky, tangled flocks that we watched straggling past Besh Barmag gave us a whole new appreciation for this familiar species! The best day was 17th November when 19,066 Great Cormorants were counted heading south, including several amazing four-figure flocks that seemed to stretch for miles along the horizon.
|A messy jumble of Great Cormorants over the hilltops (Hazel Watson)|
|A small group of Great Cormorants migrating with three Mallards (Ric Else)|
Pygmy Cormorants, on the other hand, we never see at home, and the great flocks of them migrating past were a completely new experience for us. A count of 6,754 on 19th November was our biggest Pygmy day, but counts reached the thousands on several other dates too. Migrating high above the bottleneck in diffuse, silent flocks, even a hundred-strong group of Pygmy Cormorants can be surprisingly hard to detect within the three-dimensional emptiness of the sky, and it was essential to continuously scan overhead to avoid missing them.
Coming so late in the season, it hadn’t occurred to us that we might be in for record-smashing numbers of Marsh Harriers. From 19th to 27th November, counts of migrating Marsh Harriers were in triple figures every day, but it was the 24th in particular that things got really crazy. From very first light, multiple streams and kettles of Marsh Harriers were on the move high overhead, and within an hour about 1,000 had already been logged. Although the pace slowed considerably after mid morning, the birds still kept on coming and by evening an unprecedented total of 1,394 had passed through the bottleneck.
With Marsh Harriers cruising past us all day long, we had plenty of opportunity to get to grips with their full range of plumages, including some of the exciting dark morph birds that we never see in Western Europe.
Dark morph Marsh Harrier (Ric Else)
The count station at Besh Barmag provided us with some superb raptor action almost every day. As well as the multitudes of migrating Marsh Harriers, we were lucky enough to see several southbound Rough-legged Buzzards, as well as a late Steppe Eagle and a couple of late Pallid Harriers. Even when there was little actual migration going on, Hen Harriers hunted nearby, Eastern Imperial Eagles circled overhead, and Merlins were often pursuing passerines across the nearby fields. A couple of the Merlins we saw were highly distinctive, stunningly pale birds, presumably of the pallidus ‘Steppe Merlin’ race.
A colony of lively jirds living around the counting spot proved attractive to a local Long-legged Buzzard, which often hung around nearby in the hope of ambushing one of these rodents.
White-tailed Eagles were seen most days, and scanning the tops of the nearby foothills regularly produced Black Vultures, Griffon Vultures and Golden Eagles.
|Raptors of the Besh Barmag counting spot. Clockwise from top left: White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Steppe Eagle, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Black Vulture, incoming Long-legged Buzzard (Ric Else)|
Long-legged Buzzard looking for jirds (Ric Else)
Migrating Greater Flamingos
Well, who wouldn’t love the slightly surreal sight of migrating flocks of flamingos? A count of 339 on 13th November was topped by 441 the next day, including a single flock of 160 birds making their slow, meandering and flamboyantly pink journey south over the waves. A ridiculous and unforgettable sight!
Flamingo migration (Hazel Watson)
In November, if there was one thing that all the birders at Besh Barmag were fervently hoping for, it was a sensational, sky-filling mass migration of Little Bustards. We all knew about THAT day in 2011, and were eagerly anticipating a repeat performance. Sadly, as it turned out, the big bustard bonanza never really happened in 2018. Perhaps the weather conditions north of Besh Barmag were not quite right to force the birds south, or maybe they took another route this year. Who can tell?
But we did at least get to witness one very good day for Little Bustards. On 24th November (the same day as the Marsh Harrier mayhem), the team counted 8,413 bustards migrating through the bottleneck, including spectacular flocks of up to 1,320 birds. It wasn’t quiteon the scale of the migration seven years ago, but it was still a beautiful and unforgettable event and it gave us a taste of what that legendary day in 2011 must have been like.
Big bustard flock high overhead (Ric Else)
A few slightly closer bustards (Ric Else)
As if over 8,000 Little Bustards and nearly 1,400 Marsh Harriers was not enough excitement for one day, 24th November had another highlight in store for the afternoon. A very distant skein of 21 geese was picked up high above the foothills, and it was immediately noticed that four of them looked remarkably small. All eyes were fixed on this flock as they gradually came closer and closer, and eventually got close enough for there to be no doubt at all – there really were four Red-breasted Geese migrating in a flock of Greylag and White-fronted Geese! This was a new species for Besh Barmag, and everyone had good scope views as they came directly (albeit extremely high!) overhead.
Two of the Red-breasted Geese, and a Greylag Goose (Hazel Watson)
Some quite amazing days for White-winged Lark had been recorded in November the previous year, including some days with over a hundred counted. They proved much harder to come by this year, but we were still pleased to see small numbers on several days. We got very good flight views and heard the distinctive migration calls on a few occasions, but by far the best views were on 30th November – our very last day at the count – when a White-winged Lark dropped into a nearby field and we finally enjoyed excellent scope views of it running around on the ground with a flock of Skylarks. It was a very nice way to end our stay at the count.
This was a big surprise on 22nd November. It was a relatively quiet day at the counting spot, until Kai and Gunay discovered this first for Azerbaijan in the nearby scrubland. Obligingly, it remained in the same area long enough for all the counters that day to enjoy excellent views, and even hung around for the next couple of days. While we were happily twitching the rosefinch, a stunning mixed flock of 280 Great Egrets and 19 Bewick’s Swans migrated right overhead, reminding us that there was still migration happening and that we ought to get back to work at the counting spot!
Throughout our stay at Besh Barmag, the slightest hint of an easterly wind direction invariably meant one thing: ducks! Ducks by the thousands, and ducks all day long – flock after flock streaming south over the sea. A particularly intense five-day period of southeast winds from 13th to 17th November produced a total count of 112,998 ducks migrating south.
Duck flocks frequently contained over 100 birds, usually of multiple species mingled together, and they mostly passed by quite distantly and very rapidly. At times, this was frantically high-speed anatidae ID! But what a fantastic learning experience, repeatedly picking out and counting how many of each species were in each group as quickly as possible, ready to move immediately onto the next incoming flock.
Mallards, Gadwalls, Pintails, Shovelers, Wigeons, Teal and Pochards all passed by in their thousands, and among such crazy quantity of common quackers there were also good numbers of some less familiar ducks. It was exciting to see mass migration of species that we don’t get back home in the UK, such as the 549 Ruddy Shelducks on 14th November and 411 Red-crested Pochards on 20th November. And, scanning closely through each and every flock, we were occasionally rewarded with something a bit rarer – most outrageously a Common Scoter (the first live record for Azerbaijan!) trying to sneak past us amid a flock of 50 Pochards!
In our three weeks, an astounding 21 species of duck were recorded on migration, not to mention three species of swan, four species of goose, four species of grebe and a few Black-throated Divers. It really was a sensational time for waterfowl.
Many thanks to the coordinators and organisers for all their great work arranging and running a successful project. There must still be so much to discover at this phenomenal migration bottleneck and we can’t wait to learn what amazing migration events are recorded here in future years.