Besh Barmag, bird migration, science, travels

Migration report from Besh Barmag, late Oct till early Nov 2019

Text © Andy Butler, Paul Doherty, Simon Roddis
The group at the spot © Paul Doherty
Most birdwatchers are interested in migration and, having seen the blog reports and Trektellen posts describing the huge numbers of birds passing through Besh Barmag, Andy Butler, Simon Roddis and I planned to visit in the autumn of 2019.
News of motorway construction in the area made us hesitate, but we decided to go anyway and booked our flights from Britain to Azerbaijan, landing in Baku on the 17th October and flying back in the early hours of 6th November.
A brief look at a couple of sites close to Baku produced various species, but also left us impatient to know what was happening at Besh Barmag.
We got to the counting area in the early afternoon on 17th October and had to decide where to count from as the landscape had changed since last year. Quite a bit of preparatory work has been done for the new motorway and a route excavated to just beyond Besh Barmag, ending about 8 kms north of Zarat at 41.007382, 49.218314.
It was a huge relief to find that, although various groundworks had been done, the site itself was quiet with no workers present and nothing actually being done. We decided to set up on our watchpoint on the embankment at the northern point of the works. The elevated position here gave us a good all round view and was only slightly further north than the main counting spot in 2018.
Construction work at the former counting spot © Paul Doherty
Migration count started © Andy Butler
The 18th was our first full day and it can only be described as full on, with the three of us kept busy from dawn to dusk. The main movers were Rooks and Calandra Larks with totals of 8080 and 23,110 respectively. The Calandra Larks just kept coming – every time we thought there was a pause along would come another flock. Other birds included Ruddy Shelducks and Eastern Imperial, Greater Spotted and Steppe Eagles. The 17th and 18th also produced our only Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters with calling birds announcing their presence as they passed high overhead on their way south.
Ruddy Shelducks © Paul Doherty
Our first Little Bustards came on the 22nd October when a total of 47 flew south – this proved to be the highest count of our trip. The 22nd also produced a memorable incident when a Calandra Lark being chased by a Merlin took shelter under our car. The Merlin landed briefly on the car, just a metre or two away from us, then moved to a pile of earth some five metres away, before deciding that a bush 15 metres away was a safe distance to watch us from. The Merlin was a stunning juvenile of the pallidusrace and looked strikingly different from the birds we see in Britain.
Little Bustard © Andy Butler
Juvenile pallidus Merlin © Paul Doherty
On the 23rd October we had a look at the beach and a nearby stream and enjoyed good views of Great Black-headed Gull and Spotted Crake.
Great Black-headed Gull © Andy Butler
Spotted Crake © Andy Butler
Besh Barmag isn’t especially noted for raptor migration, but we had 52 Griffon Vultures moving south on the 26th October, including a single spiral of 21 birds.
Large soaring birds also featured on the 28th when there were 149 Dalmatian Pelicans, 43 Griffon Vultures, 14 Cinereous Vultures, 11 Eastern Imperial Eagles and a single Bearded Vulture. Our first Common Cranes of the trip came on the 29th when five flew south and it was also a good day for Great Black-headed Gulls with 51 flying south.
The weather began to deteriorate on the 30th, migration slowed and there was heavy rain on 1st and 2nd November.
Migration kicked in again on the 3rd with 105 Great White Egrets (including a fine overhead group of 86), 160 Pygmy Cormorants and an outstanding 20,050 Cormorants, with the late afternoon producing one group after another, some of over one thousand birds and with the flocks often changing shape in a marvellously fluid and sinuous manner. It was also a good day for Wood Larks with 20 heading south. A first year Eastern Imperial Eagle which flew south had a green colour ring on its left leg and what appeared to be some sort of transmitter on its other leg; we hope it might be possible to discover where it came from.
Great White Egrets © Paul Doherty
Pygmy Cormorants were prominent on the 4th with 448 flying south. The 5th November was our last day and produced a star bird in the shape of 20 Black-bellied Sandgrouse powering south over the Caspian Sea. It also produced a record count of 254 Mistle Thrushes (previous high here was 58), and our first Coot was located amongst the breaking waves. The Coot was unfortunate enough to be spotted by a White-tailed Eagle which hovered above it until the Coot was too tired to dive again and was plucked from the sea and carried to the shore.
Presumably the motorway will be completed but we hope that it will still be possible for birdwatchers to gather at Besh Barmag and witness the spectacular migration. It can be a bit of an overwhelming experience – you can look through a telescope and see birds passing at all sorts of distances between you and the far horizon, or you check out some birds high overhead and realise that there are others passing even higher than them.
Our special thanks go to all the people who helped with advice and information in advance. Miryusif met us at the airport and made sure we got to the accommodation at Zarat safely. He was an invaluable source of information and advice during our trip. We did manage to get our hire car stuck on the embankment during the bad weather, so our final piece of advice is to be very careful on the dirt tracks if it rains.
Steppe soil on rainy days is very slippery © Paul Doherty
The outstanding memories from this trip are many – raptors overhead, the whistling wings of Little Bustards, a large flock of migrant Great White Egrets against a brilliant blue sky, huge flocks of Starlings shape-shifting in response to attacks from a Sparrowhawk.
Besh Barmag is a brilliant place for migration enthusiasts!

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