Azerbaijan is a wonderful place for birdwatching. Tucked in its relatively small space are environments ranging from alpine to subtropical, and this makes a home for a wide range of life, including birds. Some 365 species of birds have been recorded in Azerbaijan. These range from the large and spectacular flamingos and eagles to many kinds of waterfowl, bee-eaters, rollers and Hoopoe, and numerous small warblers that strain even the expert`s identification skills.
The avian show keeps changing through the year. Because of Azerbaijan’s relatively mild winters, many birds from farther north winter here. Water birds by the thousands concentrate in the many wetlands, large and small, coastal and inland. Among these birds are swans, geese, ducks, flamingos, and waders like black-tailed Godwit, curlew, and snipe. Along the coast, common and great black-headed gulls appear. Over the land, Hen Harriers and a few Peregrines and Saker Falcons hunt; the latter two, unfortunately and illegally, are captured for lucrative sale to Arab falconers. Some species of small birds that nest farther north also come here for the winter. Big flocks of Meadow Pipits and Bramblings, for instance, roam the open areas, feeding on seeds.
In the mountains, most birds of the alpine zone, like Guldenstadt’s Redstart and the Great Rosefinch, are forced lower in winter by snow, some down to the river valleys. The kinds of birds you can see in winter – the Peregrine for instance – may be composed of some individuals from farther north and some that are here all year. Global warming may be increasing the number of species that habitually winter in Azerbaijan.
Spring reduces the great wetland show but brings in a different storm of migrants and nesters. Most of the waterfowl and shorebirds depart for northerly climes, beginning in late February. Early arrivals from the south include Hoopoe, Barn Swallow and wheatear, all easily seen along roadsides. Overhead, you might hear the hoarse croaking of Common Cranes or glimpse a Steppe Eagle, both on their way to Russia or Kazakhstan. Spring migration peaks in April and May. All sorts of small birds, such as shrikes, warblers, and flycatchers, pass through or stay to nest. Look for bee-eaters and electric blue rollers on telephone wires. Along the coast, cormorants, terns, and waders stream by. All this passing and arrival of new life is what makes spring the most exciting time of the year for most birdwatchers.
Summer, of course, is the time of reproduction for most birds. In the marshes, herons, Pigmy Cormorants, and the remaining ducks are conspicuous, while Purple Gallinule, Moorhens, and Water Rails skulk in the reeds. The forest birds, such as tits and woodpeckers, in the mountain forests and remnant lowland patches, break away from the winter flocks to set up paired housekeeping. Alpine birds move upslope to the meadows below snowline. Larks and wheatears sing above their open country territories. Some of the days may be too hot for us sensitive humans, but there is much to see out there in the mountains and plains. Try early morning for coolness and the most bird activity.
Bird migrations in autumn are not as urgent and concentrated as they are in spring. There is no reproductive command pushing them, just the need to get where they`ll find their kind of food in winter. It all begins with certain shorebirds in late summer, picks up with small land birds in September, continues strongly with a variety of land and water birds in October, and ends with the great influx of waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) from October to December. Throughout the fall, raptors such as eagles and hawks pass through, especially along the coast. Water birds, too, have preferred flyways. The majority follow the coast, some cutting across the Apsheron Peninsula and some going around it. While many of those not stopping in Azerbaijan continue toward Iran along the coast, others turn westward up the Kura River lowlands toward interior wetlands. A few go on to the Black Sea.
Where to Go
Below are five of my favourite birdwatching places. Four of these areas are nature reserves. To enter these you need written permission from the State Ecological Committee, which manages them. However, if you don`t have permission, nearby areas often have many of the same birds. Many of the wetlands are hunted, but this poses no danger to birdwatchers.
This mountain, which rises to 3,629 meters, is sacred to many Azeris, who make pilgrimages to it. I include it here as an excellent place to see alpine birds and enjoy the craggy scenery. Late May through July is the season. The birds, most of which are infrequently seen at lower elevations, include the Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Grouse, Great Rosefinch, Guldenstadt`s Redstart, Red-fronted Serin, Snowfinch, and many others. It is 1½ days from Baku. The usual route is from the Guba side of the mountains, starting the trek from the village of Garkhun or higher, depending on what your four-wheel-drive can negotiate.
Cape Gilazi Dili (Map)
I like this place for its sense of remoteness as well as its birds. It offers wet fields, rocky and sandy shore, and a marsh-fringed lagoon that is often full of birds. In the wet fields north of the road that leads to Yeni Yashma, ducks and geese congregate in the cooler months, along with lapwings and other shorebirds. There is usually a Marsh Harrier or two cruising about, and once I saw a magnificent Imperial Eagle. Shorebirds like Grey Plovers and Dunlins can be seen along the sea fringe. At the end of this track you’ll find a shack on stilts and the lagoon mentioned above. Dalmatian Pelican, Short-eared Owl, Common Cranes, and White Stork, along with five kinds of herons can be seen in early October at Cape Gilazi.
Lake Chadzygabul – Hajigabul (Map)
One of the virtues of this lake, just south of Gazimammad, is that much of it has no fringing reeds you have an unobstructed view of the thousands of ducks that winter here. They usually congregate off the north shore or out in the middle. With a telescope you can get a wonderful view of ten or more kinds of ducks – Shoveler, Mallard, Teal, White-headed Ducks, Common and Red-crested Pochard, Tufted Duck, and others. Late summer through spring, you should also see herons and a variety of waders. On one January visit, I saw seven flamingos and a flock of 300 avocets. The ponds along the highway on the west side of the lake can be very good for shorebirds too. To reach the lake, about 1½ hours from Baku, take the southerly bypass around Gazimammad.
Lankaran to Lerik
This road, running from the coastal lowland to a view of Talish Mountain peaks, follows a stream valley with the lushest, most beautiful forest I’ve seen in Azerbaijan. I include this area here because of the scenery and the potential for birds – I have not yet studied it carefully. The forest should have the usual complement of permanent residents such as tits, woodpeckers, and treecreepers, and summer birds such as Semi-collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers. Along the stream hunt for Dippers. Past Lerik look for Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture), Radde’s Accentor, Alpine Swift, Snowfinch, Alpine Chough, and other birds of the high mountains. Check the routes beyond Lerik and see if permission and/or a military guide is needed to enter this area near the Iranian border. The border guards may be suspicious of someone using binoculars.
Red (Bloody) Lake
This freshwater lake is the best birdwatching area near Baku. Red Lake is full of birds, especially in winter. Up the valley from it, extensive marshes hide lots of other birds. What you can see, of course, changes with the seasons. Early summer is the low season, with a few ducks and herons hanging around and warblers and other small birds creeping about in the reeds. If you can get there just after sunrise, you may see Purple Swamphens catching the sun`s warmth at the edge of the marsh below Wolfgate. In late summer, migrating waders begin arriving, to feed on invertebrates in the mudflats.
During the main Autumn migration you can see a great variety of water birds: ducks, waders, herons, gulls, terns, & maybe a flamingo or two. As winter comes on, many of these disappear, but the duck and coot populations build up to hundreds. Often these Shovelers, Mallards, the rare White-headed Duck, and others are easily watched from the highway on the south side. Other days you need to don rubber boots and trek the muddy west shore. Almost always, you`ll see Marsh Harriers coursing over the reeds, looking for prey.
(Adapted from Azerbaijan International by Nepýer Shelton)
Major Source: Fatbirder
Map Source: Wiki Commons