Text © Michael Heiß
No Besh Barmag Bird Migration Count was organised for autumn 2019 (see here: https://birdingazerbaijan.org/2019/03/15/besh-barmag-bottleneck-activities-for-2019/) leaving room for exploring the country by some members of the organisation team in late autumn. Our aims were as follows:
(1) Checking the situation at Besh Barmag, where the construction of a new highway right next to the bird counting station led to the cancellation of the count for autumn 2019.
(2) Which of the resident and near-endemic bird species in the Greater Caucasus and Talysh Mountains can be found in the non-breeding season?
(3) What is the autumn birding potential of the newly opened Qizilagach National Park?
(4) Meeting kind persons.
(5) Having fun.
Our trip started on 6 November and finished on 23 November 2019 and followed the route Baku – Absheron National Park – Besh Barmag – Greater Caucasus (Xinaliq, Laza) – Shirvan National Park – Qizilagach National Park – Talysh Mountains including Zuvand upland – Gobustan – Besh Barmag – Baku.
Our first birding day on 6 November brought us to the Absheron National Park. We camped outside and passed the entrance after the park opened. In the morning hours we witnessed quite some migration of passerines, mainly Chaffinches, Bramblings, Siskins, Linnets, Goldfinches, larks, thrushes and pipits. Highlights among the local birds were 22 Greater Flamingos, 7 Horned Grebes in the Caspian Sea, 6500 Coots in lagoons, 36 Grey Plovers, 15 Kentish Plovers, 300 Dunlins, 15 Sanderlings, 1 Jack Snipe, 15 Slender-billed Gulls, 1 Peregrine, 1 Coal Tit out of range, 1 Bluethroat and 2 Red-breasted Flycatchers. We tried to check each of the about 30 Penduline Tits carefully looking for rarer subspecies. We were lucky with at least three caspius-Penduline Tits. They usually breed in the northern Caspian region and were only once before observed in Azerbaijan (October 2007 at Besh Barmag). As this record was not documented by photographs the observed birds from Absheron can be considered as first records for the country. Most of the remaining birds looked like the local menzbieri-subspecies (similar appearence to the nominate pendulinus). Two rather tame Desert Wheatears along the beach made this first birding day perfect (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61219969). Heading to Besh Barmag we picked up two counters, Tohar and Erik, from the Batumi Raptor Count, who joined us for some days.
From 7 to 9 November (https://trektellen.nl/count/view/1533/20191107) we visited Besh Barmag bottleneck and spent the nights in the Zarat guesthouses. Another Dutch group was already there and we made the bird migration counts together. The days were in general pretty slow. Maybe it was too warm with about 20°C and southerly winds. Some highlights included single Buff-bellied Pipits, a Pallid Harrier, Dalmatian Pelicans and Pygmy Cormorants. In the afternoons we birded at Besh Barmag Mountain, where we found 60 Rock Sparrows, 2 Western Rock Nuthatches and 2 Alpine Accentors (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61759842). In the Candy Cane Mountains a pair of Finch’s Wheatear showed well and a perched Golden Eagle next to the road was another highlight (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61759834). The morning of 9 November was foggy with very low visibility, so we decided to leave Besh Barmag early that day and drove to Xinaliq in the Greater Caucasus.
On 10 November we went up to the Qizilqaya Mountain in the Shadagh National Park, where we found most of the local specialities: 18 Caucasian Snowcocks, 1 Bearded Vulture, 11 Horned Larks, 2 Güldenstädt’s Redstarts, 3 White-winged Snowfinches, 6 Red-fronted Serins besides the regular species (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61323659). The species list is quite similar to spring birding in this area and finding these Caucasian specialities is probably year-round possible.
On our way from Xinaliq to Laza on 11 November we had a very productive roadside stop at the Gudiyalchay river canyon with 1 Bearded Vulture, 2 Wallcreepers, 25 Ring Ouzels, 2 Güldenstädt’s Redstarts (first time recorded down here), 8 Bullfinches, 14 Red-fronted Serins and 4 Rock Buntings. Near Cek village a party of 18 Grey Partridges was another delight (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61354298).
Arriving in Laza around noon, we spent the afternoon birding around the entrance of the Shadagh National Park. Weather was still sunny and warm and we encountered 1 Bearded Vulture, 1 Cinereous Vulture, 2 Griffon Vultures, 2 Golden Eagles, 20 Red-billed Choughs, 5 Alpine Choughs, 2 Ring Ouzels, 4 Alpine Accentors, a huge flock of 180 Caucasian Twites mixed with about 30 Red-fronted Serins (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61356792). Pretty enjoyable.
On 12 November we left Laza early in the morning and drove back to Baku. Here we dropped Erik and Tohar and replaced them by Leyla. Leyla joined all kinds of birding activities in the past few years, like the Besh Barmag Bird Migration Count and also guided birding trips. An introducing guest blog can be read on the website of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East: https://www.osme.org/2019/03/i-love-nature-7/. Our next stop were the fish ponds near the entrance of the Shirvan National Park. The ponds were dried out, so almost no birds around despite a juvenile Isabelline Shrike and a male Finch’s Wheatear (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61387651). We entered the Shirvan National Park in the late afternoon. In the shrubs near the entrance we saw 2 Black Francolins and the first flocks of Goitered Gazelle. We spent the evening at the ‘lake house’ enjoying the sunset and many birds that flew to roost into the reed beds around the lake. We noticed 252 Magpies, 28200 Rooks, Hooded Crows and Jackdaws, 3000 Starlings, 50 Marsh Harriers and 5 Hen Harriers. After dusk around 10 Great Bitterns, 1 Little Bittern and 3 Black-crowned Night Herons were heard calling from the dark night sky. A Barn Owl hunted around the building (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61390824).
On the next day we found 4 Marbled Ducks, 1 Dalmatian Pelican and 1 Grey-headed Swamphen among other waterfowl at the Flamingo Lake in Shirvan National Park. The reed beds were filled with Cetti’s Warbler, Bearded Tits and a few Penduline Tits (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61411534). We drove further south in the afternoon.
On 14 November we birded outside of the northern part of the Qizilagach National Park. Fishponds, lagoons and other wetlands were pretty dry, so we could not find much. Further south we checked Lake Mahmudchala, where we found plenty of waterfowl and waders including 4800 Northern Shovelers, 100 Mallards, 100 Pintails, 11’100 Teals, 2 Marbled Ducks, 280 Greater Flamingos, 40 Pied Avocets, 100 Northern Lapwings, 11 White-tailed Lapwings, 50 Marsh Sandpipers, 2 Black-tailed Godwits and so on (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61437559).
We camped the night near Masalli and the next morning on 15 November we checked different lagoons and coastal habitats around Liman, Narimanabad and Baliqcilar. We saw 685 Little Grebes, 66 Little Bustards, 500 Pied Avocets, 18 Grey Plovers, 450 Dunlins, 85, Little Stints, 2 Jack Snipes, 122 Slender-billed Gulls, 3 Pallas’s Gulls, 1 Short-eared Owl, 2 Merlins, 8 coutellii-Water Pipits and 12 Buff-bellied Pipits (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61461297). Entering the Qizilagach National Park was easy, but due to missing infrastructure like bird hides or hiking trails we soon left the park. The ongoing construction activities, however, looked promising for next year.
From 16 to 19 November we visited the Talysh Mountains in southern Azerbaijan. We stayed in the Tebessüm resort, which is located within the unique and impressive Talysh forest. Here we were also enjoying delicious breakfast and dinner for an affordable price. In the mountains we wanted to check the possibilities to find the enigmatic Caspian Tit. This species was recently rediscovered in this region and is always a highlight during spring birding trips. Nobody knows what they are doing in the non-breeding season. So, subsequently, our first birding day in the Talysh Mountains brought us right to Mastail near Lerik, where this species is known from the breeding season. We left the car in the village and walked up a steep muddy hill. Weather was freezing cold with snow showers here and there. Just outside the village we were lucky to find our first pair of Caspian Tits feeding on seeds of an Acer-tree. We saw them quite well and were happy to find them so quickly. As the day has just started we continued the hike up the hill and found 4 more Caspian Tits in the forested areas. Very nice. Here we also heard a distant Black Woodpecker and a nearby Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61484130). Thrushes accompanied us the whole day in the mountains, but we could not find any Black-throated Thrushes, which was our next target species in the Talysh Mountains. According to old Russian literature, this species is a common wintering species in the Talysh Mountains, but was recently rarely seen in Azerbaijan. In the last 20 years just four records are available (1 diurnal and 1 nocturnal migrant from Besh Barmag bottleneck, 1 observation from Gobustan and another from Masalli in winter 2006).
We decided to drive to Mistan in the Zuvand upland close to the Iranian border. In spring time this place is excellent for White-throated Robins, Radde’s Accentor or Crimson-winged Finch, but probably no birder visited this place during winter time in recent years. We quickly found the year-round resident species like a big flock of 25 Chukars, several Ring Ouzels here and there, Western Rock Nuthatches and a flock of 20 Red-fronted Serins. Further up the slope we heard strange thrush-like calls, which turned out to come from a Black-throated Thrush beautifully sitting on white frost covered branches. Few more birds hided in other bushes and we finally counted 5 individuals. What a great discovery! (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61759786).
Around noon we checked the riparian forests in the Zuvand upland, but could only find the regular species: Green Woodpecker, Syrian Woodpecker, tits, Robins, Dunnock and Yellowhammers with no Pine Buntings between them. Surprisingly, we flushed a Woodcock. Overhead we saw 1 Imperial Eagle, 1 Cinereous Vulture and 1 Golden Eagle (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61514087).
We then tried a steep muddy and partly frozen track in south-eastern direction. We were glad to have a 4WD car, but even with this machine, we were sliding here and there and it was very precarious at times to keep control of the car, which was driving right next to the steep gradient of the mountain ridge. Breaks don’t work on ice when you drive down the hill. Amazing experience! Nevertheless, along the ridge we found an area, which was well covered by bushes. In these we found a mixed flock of thrushes, which was dominated by another 20 Black-throated Thrushes! Several flocks of Chukars, totalling 40 individuals, and 5 Red-fronted Serins were other highlights of this spot (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61515280).
We had one more day in the Talysh Mountains and checked the area around Monididagh. Unfortunately, nothing worth to be mentioned here (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61547539).
Again in the Zuvand upland we found another Black-throated Thrush between 300 Fieldfares in the riparian forest near Gosmalian (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61548792).
In the morning of 19 November we birded the forest around the Tebessüm resort and got good views of the poelzami-Woodpecker (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61573597). On the same day we left the Talysh Mountains and headed north. A stop at the Gobustan petroglyphs site produced nothing special, but nice species anyway in this rocky habitat: 8 Chukars, 3 Red-bill Choughs, 25 Western Rock Nuthatches, 3 Finch’s Wheatears, 11 Rock Sparrows, 20 Red-fronted Serins and 3 Rock Buntings besides more regular species (https://ebird.org/checklist/S61576014).
In the evening we arrived again in Zarat and conducted bird migration counts at Besh Barmag from 20 to 23 November. Weather was really an issue in these days. The 20 November was still ok with not too much rain, but a cold northerly wind. We already missed our shelter from last year, but as an improvement we were equipped with a nice samovar that offered us hot tea whenever needed. However, bird migration was fine on 20 November. Most passerines already passed through resulting in rather low numbers logged. Especially, Starlings, Rooks and larks migrated in manageable numbers. Highlights for this day were 601 migrating Dalmatian Pelicans, 227 Marsh Harriers and 75 Pallas’s Gulls (https://trektellen.nl/count/view/1533/20191120). On 21 November temperature dropped to a maximum of 6°C and rain poured the entire day. We still missed the shelter. Due to the bad weather, bird migration was low, but we observed about 10’000 migrating ducks, 86 Dalmatian Pelicans and the first two Waxwings for the counting spot was still ok (https://trektellen.nl/count/view/1533/20191121). The bad weather continued on 22 November with temperatures slightly above zero degrees. A continuous mix of rain and snow made us soaking wet within minutes. We counted more than 15’000 ducks, 2 Rough-legged Buzzards and 1202 Ruddy Shelducks that passed through in several flocks (https://trektellen.nl/count/view/1533/20191122). We really hoped for a spectacular event that happened several years ago under similar weather conditions with strong frost and snowfall in the northern Caspian region extending to the bottleneck area: https://trektellen.nl/count/view/1533/20111107 and https://birdingazerbaijan.org/2011/11/10/first-snow/. But nothing similar happened this time.
The 23 November was still cold, but at least the sun was shining. The snow-covered foothills gave a picturesque scenery. We counted only little more than three hours (https://trektellen.nl/count/view/1533/20191123) before we packed our stuff to spend our last evening in Baku.