First casual, then blizzard birding: mid-winter in Istanbul

(with contributions by Lesley Starke)

During my annual trip to South Africa, it has become customary to first find the cheapest plane ticket, and thereafter see how I can maximize my lifelist gains. This year took me through Istanbul in Turkey, which initially really excited me because I’ve never really birded mainland Europe before. But 2011 was going to be different, because my lovely girlfriend, Lesley, joined me for my trip to South Africa– she also happens to have wanted to visit Istanbul for ages. To try to bring some sanity to our trip, she convinced me to put down my binoculars for this layover and do the things normal tourists apparently enjoy. I guess something had to give after our California extravaganza. In reality however, the birding break came at an opportune time as I was rather tired after a month of traveling Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand prior to Turkey (with a one day lay-over in the US in between!). As such, I hope you tolerate that I deviate somewhat from the norm in this post. The written section of this post will mostly focus on birds, while the photos will mostly chronicle the many wonderful Turkish attractions we visited during my first visit (mid December), and a blizzard birding experience during my second visit to Istanbul (end January).


Istanbul is one of the most historically significant cities in the world. Flanked by the Black Sea in the north, Bosphorus Strait in the east, and Sea of Marmara in the south, Europe’s second most populous city (with a third of the city inhabitants actually living in Anatolian Istanbul, the Asian section of the city) is a true mix of cultures, with elements of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires well preserved. Some attractions, such as the Hagia Sophia, are perhaps more famous than the city. We were most impressed to learn that the Hagia Sophia was continually a house of worship (although switching faiths a few times) from 503AD until 1931, then opening in 1953 as a museum. Equally impressive is the Sultan Ahmed (or Blue) Mosque which faces the Hagia Sophia. The Basilica Cistern is something out of this world with really beautiful photo ops if your camera can handle severely low light. Or one can take a ferry tour on the Bosphorus Strait, where one can get particular impressive views of the Topkapı Palace and Gülhane Park. And if you’re so inclined, many options also exist to take a little bit of the culture home with you. Istanbul offers renowned shopping extravaganzas, be it at the world’s oldest continuous Spice Market, or the Grand Bazaar

Despite its massive population, Istanbul has much to offer travelling birders, even in winter. Perhaps the most notable (though possibly irregular) winter visitor to Istanbul is the endangered Red-breasted Goose, with the resident Pygmy Cormorant deserving honorable mention. Waterbirds are indeed a strong feature in Istanbul during winter, and relatively easy to see. For just YTL1.50, ferries crossing the Bosphurus Strait provide access to the easiest location in the world for Yelkouan Shearwater. Or you can challenge yourself by separating the similar-looking Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls, both relatively common in greater Istanbul. Freshwater habitats comprising internationally important wetlands are more prominent towards the west of Istanbul. Or birders can stroll through the Belgrad Forest, a mere 15km from the city center, where forest birds such as the Eurasian Tree-creeper and Short-toed Tree-creeper occur side by side. Of course, birding in Istanbul really heats up during migration, when Küçük Çamlica Hill offers not only offers superb elevated views across the city, but also an unrivaled vintage point to observe a spectacular migration of raptors, storks, and other songbirds crossing the Bosphorus. Or you can simply use Istanbul as a gateway to the birding riches elsewhere in Turkey, often considered the top birding destination in Europe.



Key birding resources

  • Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D. & Mullarney, K. 2010. Birds of Europe. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Birdwatch Turkey is Turkey’s top professional birdtour outfit. Their website and blog was tremendously helpful in guiding our birding activities during my first visit, while tour leader and photographer Soner Bekir kindly offered to take me birding during the second visit.
  • Kuşbank (registration required) is a bird sightings database for Turkish birders. While I did not use it much during this trip, I will certainly do so in future.
  • Michael Grunwell’s 2004 summary of his birding experiences while living in Istanbul provided valuable background information, and I used his hand-drawn maps to orientate myself towards Istanbul’s top birding spots.
  • We navigated by uploading zoomed versions of our routes on my iphone’s native Maps app. The dynamic tracking while roaming proved invaluable.
  • For the touristy leg of our trip, we found most value from MTrip and Lonely Planet’s Istanbul apps. Once again the dynamic tracking proved very useful in helping with navigation, knowing what’s around, and getting briefs on locations.
  • For perspective and expectations, Wikitravel’s Turkey and Istanbul sections were valuable reads prior to the trip.


Visas and accommodation

Turkey is one of very few counties outside Africa where Americans need visas to enter and South Africans not! I’m certainly not complaining. Lesley (a US citizen) had no problems passing through passport control, with the most important formality being a USD20 visa fee. But this is where it became interesting, because, while Lesley was allowed to officially enter Turkey, the agent who helped us sent me to Line 32, leaving poor Lesley stranded behind passport control not knowing whether she’s ever again see me or not. Anyway, with me in line 32 was an Indian citizen (who passed through as I arrived) and an Israeli citizen. The Israeli citizen was not allowed to enter Turkey because she did not have a hotel booking, which got me all stressed out because I was in a similar predicament. Luckily, after a little waiting and answering the customary questions about the purpose of my visit and showing my onward Emirates flight booking (we arrived with Air France), I was on my way to be reunited with Lesley. This effortless process essentially repeated itself during my second visit, only this time Lesley wasn’t with me, and more Indian citizens shared line 32 with me.

During both trips we/I stayed at the Anadolu Hotel in the heart of Istanbul. Given our budgets, I don’t think we could’ve asked for better. Although modest, Anadolu offered extremely friendly and helpful staff (notably the day staff; the guy on nightshift was a bit gruff), a clean private room with bed and shower, and standard Turkish breakfast every morning, all for only USD40/night. Perhaps best about Anadolu was its location: essentially on top of the Basilica Cistern, and nested right between Gülhane Park, Topkapı Palace, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome of Constantinople, Sultanahmed Terminal and countless shops (all about 2-3 blocks away), and within easy walking distance from the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar. Anadolu’s staff also allowed us to store our bags at the hotel during the nights we were not going to stay, which would’ve been during our failed attempt to visit Ephesus.


Getting around

The public transport system in Istanbul rivals the best I’ve experienced in developed countries. And it’s dirt cheap. The light rail system cover much of the city, with a ride costing only YTL2 ($1) (some paid connections might be required), while ferries over the Bosphorus Strait are even cheaper, at YTL1.75 (and a trip to the Princes’ Islands a mere YTL3.50). We used the rail system to commute between the airport and the city, and initially to move around the city. But after we realized how compact Istanbul’s main tourist region really was, we walked most of the time, with sporadic rides into the New City, Asian side, or Galata simply because my fitness isn’t what it used to be. Indeed Istanbul is remarkably walkable, and we required about 3 relaxed days to see essentially all the must-sees and more as listed on the Lonely Planet and Mtrip iPhone apps.

While Michael Grunwell’s 2004 summary indicate how birders can access Istanbul’s top birding sites using the public transport system, we ended up renting a car for one day, to maximize the amount of ground we could cover.  We rented the car at Dollar Rent-a-Car at Atatürk Airport, where we dealt with the pleasant and funny manager directly. He even gave us loads of free advice that turned out to be quite good.

We had one issue with getting around. We originally planned to spend half our time in Istanbul, and the other half in Ephesus in southwestern Turkey. This plan sadly didn’t work out because the trains from Haydarpaşa Gari station to Epehsus (with a connection in Izmir) were fully booked. Prior booking thus seems essential, especially outside winter when Istanbul’s population swells with an influx of tourists and residents (an amazing 7 million visitors visited Istanbul in 2010!).



Day 1-5: Dec 16-20, 2011

With our Ephesus trip not working out, we spent most of the first four days of the trip in Istanbul’s Old City, with smaller excursions made into the New CityAsian side, and Galata. The Asian side of the city felt considerably less touristy and we got to mingle with more folks that were obviously going to work and carrying about their normal lives. In Galata we enjoyed the holiday decorations and some statues at Taksim Square. Along our stroll back to the Old City, we saw more old and facinating structures such as the Galata Tower, Camondo Stairs, and Tarihi Çeşme. We had to take a cafe break during which we played Scrabble (Turkish version, naturally) which led to some very funny disagreements over allowable spelling.

In between hopping from one tourist attraction to the next, looking for bargains on Iranian Saffron at the Spice Market, and wishing our budgets could accommodate one of those amazing silk carpets at the Grand Bazaar, we also made some time for a little casual birding (or maybe, considering our effort, the birds came looking for us!). Most impressive was a flock of about 400-500 noisy Rooks that circled the Gülhane Terminal at dusk every night. Strolls through Gülhane Park was also productive, with Blue Tits and Great Tits, European Robin, and Eurasian Magpie frequently seen, Hooded Crows omnipresent, and flocks of feral Alexandrine Parakeets (and maybe also Ring-necked Parakeets) hopping noisily in the park’s large oak trees. The trees between Gülhane Park and Sirkecı Terminal seemed like the best location for Jackdaws in the Old City, hanging out with some Rooks.

We undertook two ferry trips over the Bosphorus, and one into the Sea of Marmara. Our first Bosphorus trip was a scenic tour, while the second was a return trip between Emınönü (on the European side) and Harem (on the Asian side), as part of our attempt to get to Ephesus. During both these trips Yelkouan Shearwater was a sitter in open waters, as was Great Cormorant, European Shag, and Sandwich Tern. It took a little more effort to spot Mediterranean Gull and Common (Mew) Gulls among the more numerous Common Black-headed Gulls, while we also saw a single Little Gull at the Emınönü ferry docks.

Our trip into the Sea of Marmara was on the fifth day, when we headed over to the Princes’ Islands. We added this trip on the suggestion from a waiter while we had lunch to figure out how to spend our extra few days in Istanbul– we would recommend this to others. During this trip the Bosphorus birds essentially repeated itself, except that I thought we also saw a Horned Grebe just off Heybeliada (I could not confirm the ID because the bird was relative far from us, the ferry was moving fast, and the water was a bit choppy). Once there, we spent our time on Büyükada, the largest of the nine islands in the group. The major surprise here was a modest but  very interesting herbarium?!?! Apart from seabirds and Hooded Crows, we found Büyükada surprisingly devoid of birds. Extensive walks around the village produced the odd Blue Tit and Chaffinch here and there. Maybe it was just because it was winter with the predictable December weather: cold drizzle. But I also saw quite a few chaffinches, goldfinches, and greenfinches in cages, so I’m sure that the captive bird trade plays a role in the lack of resident passerines around human habitation. I do however look forward to revisiting during the more conducive summer season.


Day 6: Dec 21, 2011

The sixth and last day of our revised Istanbul itinerary included some of Istanbul’s top birding destinations. Our first port ‘o call was the Belgrad Ormanı (forest), a mere 15km north of central Istanbul. Not knowing what exactly to expect, we arrived in the forest around 5AM or 6AM only to realize that, at least at first sight, the easiest way to access the forest was going to be from the small reserve just off the main road bisecting the reserve. The reserve however opened only at 7AM (if I recall correctly), so we took a short 2-hour power-nap in from of the gate. Inside the reserve things were rather quiet at first, until all hell broke loose with a massive bird party in the oak forest canopy on the shores the reserve’s lake (Büyük Barajı). Top species was without a doubt the few Short-toed Tree-creepers we saw well. Woodpeckers were also prominent, with Lesser-spotted, Middle-spotted, and Grey-headed seen both both of us, while Lesley’s Eurasian Green Woodpecker escaped by eyes. Otherwise, we enjoyed protracted views of Eurasian Jay, Marsh Tit, Wood Nuthatch, and a Little Grebe on the lake itself. After about two hours, and the birding productivity finally improving, we made to call to continue with our birding sampler tour rather than getting stuck at one spot.

Our next birding location was the eastern end of Terkos Gölü on the outskits of Durusu. Blue Tits and Great Tits were common in the thickets along the shoreline, while a Moustached Warbler  also made an appearance. Our main target bird was also easy to spot, with a few coot-sized Pygmy Cormorant sitting perching on a cluster of reeds in the middle of the lake. A Common Snipe flew over our heads while we spotted a few Common Kingfishers. Then, as a Mallard flew over our heads we realized there was a striking lack of waterfowl on a seemingly good lake. Our suspicions were confirmed when the loud sound of a gunshot filled the air mere seconds after we saw the Mallard. My hopes of seeing Red-breasted Goose vanished into thin air.

The Black Sea wasn’t far from Terkos Gölü, and we welcomed the shorter 4km commute to Karaburun. Birding was however exceptionally quiet at Karaburun with a small flock of Eurasian Goldfinch spotted on a fence along the road, and a few Grey Plovers on the beach. Honorable mention goes to a cat on a telephone post that seriously looked like an owl in the distance.

Once we were done with the Black Sea were were off to our last destination for the day, Lake Büyükçekmece (Büyükçekmece Gölü), situated (kind of) en route to Atatürk Airport. My hopes for Red-breasted Goose got a bit of a boost here when we saw great numbers of waterfowl on the northern end of the lake. But, even after we found a small service road that provided access to the shoreline nearest to the waterfowl, it was clear that we needed a scope to make confident identifications on most of the species present. At least we did not leave empty-handed, with a few Common Pochards and Common Shelduck being close enough for binoculars-identification, while we also spotted Black-necked (Eared) Grebe, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Kestrel, and a fleeting glimpse of a Syrian Woodpecker along a small stream to the north of the lake. Then it was time to hit rush-hour traffic en route back to the airport.


Day 7: Jan 31 2012

I arrived back in Turkey, en route to the USA, on Jan 30, 2012, all psyched do go look for Red-breasted Goose the next day. The night of January 30, 2012 coincidentally also marked another major event: the onset of one of the most severe cold waves in recent years to hit Turkey. During that night, a heavy blanket of snow covered Istanbul, crippling the region’s transportation system and all but grounding the city to a halt. Under normal circumstances one would cancel a birding trip in such conditions. However, this Red-breasted Goose attempt involved a plane ticket change from my side, while Turkish birding powerhouse Soner Bekir, from Birdwatch Turkey and who kindly offered to help me in my quest, drove 300km from Bursa to Istanbul to meet up with me. Consequently, neither of us were going to be first to call off this crazy blizzard-birding trip. (The fact that I was a non-paying client, and Soner was inquisitive about what the conditions would bring certainly helped; as a part-time bird guide myself I would never take a paying client out on a trip like this, and Soner said as much repeatedly during our time together.) And so we met up early morning on Jan 31, and were off facing the nightmarish road conditions. Kudos to Soner who managed to exhibit some driving skills I certainly do not possess, as he navigated over seriously slippery roads where stopping in the slush was not an option (you’ll never get going again).

Our first location for the day was the southern end of Lake Büyükçekmece. This time around there were definitely more waterfowl, compared to my first visit. But despite having Soner’s scope this time round, identifying the waterfowl was nearly impossible in the howling, blistery cold wind. We gave up after identifying a few nearby Eurasian Wigeon, Common Shelduck, and Mallard. Our next stop, on the west of the lake, was sheltered by a nearby hill and certainly more productive. One of the first birds we saw here was a Pygmy Cormorant, while a Wood Lark that joined two Eurasian Skylarks on the small service road we were on. Other species new to my Turkish list here were Reed Buntings, Meadow Pipits, and a single Long-legged Buzzard fighting the wind overhead. Sadly apart from a Mallard and Little Grebe this spot was rather waterfowl-poor, so we headed over towards the northern end of the lake. But, to give you an idea of the visibility on the day, we only spotted the highway we were supposed to take as we were almost through the intersection. Because of the slippery conditions, we were unable to return, putting an end to my hopes of seeing Red-breasted Goose on this trip. And so we headed towards Terkos Gölü, picking up Cirl Bunting en route.

A fairly large hill on the outskirts of nearby Karaburun offered shelter to Terkos Gölü, so we had a relatively pleasant time birding this location. One of the first birds we spotted was an Eurasian Woodcock I flushed from the reeds as we approached the lake’s shore, with our attempts to get better views of this bird resulting in another two Woodcocks flushed, as well as good views of Common Kingfisher. Blue Tits, Eurasian Goldfinch, and Chaffinch were ubiquitous in the lakeside thickets, while we also recorded more Great Tits and Coal Tits, Syrian Woodpeckers, Eurasian Jay, and a single Hawfinch. Scanning the waterfowl delivered a surprise Common Goldeneye, while we also spotted Great-crested Grebes. Later, a Hen Harrier and Western Harrier appeared simultaneously over the extensive reedbeds, while a Greater Black-headed (Pallas’) Gull circling high overhead was my bird of the day.

Next was the Black Sea at Karaburun, which, despite high winds and rumbling waves, also proved more productive this time that during my first trip. One of the first birds we saw was a Black-necked (Eared) Grebe in the harbor. The Grey Plovers we saw on my first trip were still there, this time joined by a few Eurasian Golden Plovers, Sanderling, Dunlin, some Horned Larks, and a White Wagtail. After multiple Yellow-legged Gulls through the day, a cooperative Caspian Gull that provided extended quality observation made a welcome appearance. A few Little Gulls foraging in the waves threw me a bit because their behavior was more reminiscent of Black-legged Kittiwakes off Massachusetts than the Little Gulls I’ve seen flying fast in tight flocks off North Carolina. A small group of Red-breasted Mergansers foraging in pretty rough also provided some additional perspective, with me being more used to them on open quiet lakes in eastern USA. We ended the day with a Water Rail foraging among reeds at Terkos Gölü on our way back, and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk flying over an icy D010 Highway closer to Istanbul.



Istanbul as a destination

Lesley and I had an absolutely fantastic time in Istanbul, and found it one of the most tourist-friendly cities I’ve ever visited. Most importantly, we found Istanbul bizarrely clean for a large city, remarkably safe (I never felt threatened), amazingly cheap, and the public transport simply awesome. I’m sure that our experiences were affected by our visit in winter. Or maybe because I’m used to pretty aggressive hawkers in Africa. It’s always a matter of expectations and perspectives. But in all honesty, even the persistent street vendors in Istanbul never really irritated us. In fact, we had fun times with the vendors, such as the time when we got called from afar as “America!”, and then greeted with screams of “Bafana Bafana” when I made sure they’re aware of my South African identity. We were aware that Istanbul is a haven for clip joints, and luckily also avoided some seemingly unavoidable restaurant scams that befell other tourists. We hope our luck continues through our next visit to Istanbul, which Lesley and I eagerly await. (Note, Lesley did not have as much fun during her second visit en route back to the USA, when the city was much more invasive for a lone female traveler.)



It’s a fair assumption that an Istanbul visit would usually involve a dedicated trip rather than a lay-over. So I understood when my Turkish friends wanted to know why on earth I chose December for our visit. Either way, based on their reactions I mentally prepared myself for a cold, grey, wet, and mostly hotel-bound experience. And this is exactly the type of conditions that a friend experienced during his Istanbul visit in between my two trips. Lesley and I were therefore incredibly fortunate to have experienced awesome weather during our trip. True, it was a bit cold, but not freezing so actually pretty comfortable, while it usually rained at night, leaving us able to move around freely during the day.

Things were of course a bit different during my second visit, when some extreme cold weather hit Europe. It certainly affected the day’s birding, but it was also a rather interesting adventure that I was happy to experience (safely, thanks to Soner’s driving skills!). More importantly, I consider myself tremendously lucky that I managed to leave Istanbul on the early morning of Feb 1, after 118 flights from Atatürk were cancelled on the day I flew out!


Navigating Istanbul by car (self-drive)

Driving was perhaps our most difficult experience in Istanbul. My second visit to Istanbul was of course more affected by the slushy road conditions than the people sharing the road, so I consider my first trip a more representative experience. I drove in Istanbul at night (reasonable experience), in the countryside during the day (pleasant experience), and during rush-hour, which was nerve-wrecking. That is, unless you consider 5-6 rows of cars squeezing into 3 painted lanes, with under-aged vendors running among these tightly packed lanes selling fruit and toys a relaxed day at the office. This was essentially the scene while driving from Lake Büyükçekmece to Atatürk Airport on the E80/O-3.  It’s not so much the driving, but more coping with vehicles changing lanes that was most intimidating. Changing lanes is frequently required, either to pass some accident scene, broken-down truck, or roadworks. This is of course a bit more difficult when lanes move at different speeds, and your fellow road users refuse to provide any openings. So you simply have to force your way into another lane and hope for the best, and be as alert as you’ve ever been to avoid having others doing the same bump into you. I would not recommend driving in Istanbul if you do not have experience driving in major cities with a substantial level of chaos. To give you some perspective, I consider rush-hour driving in Malaysia’s Kuala Lampur more relaxing, and never experienced Istanbul’s level of chaos anywhere in a developed country. Maybe Istanbul’s rush-hour could be explained as a mild hybrid between UAE’s speeds and Nairobi’s chaos. So yes, definitely take your rental company’s insurance options regardless of your own skills.

For navigation, we uploaded zoomed versions of all the envisaged routes we planned to drive prior onto my iphone’s native Maps app. This probably took us about ten minutes on our hotel’s wireless internet connection, the day before our birding outing.  The map was however a bit outdated. Specifically, the D010 Highway did not feature at all, so we drove small side roads parallel to the highway for much of the time during our commute between Belgrad forest and Durusu. This didn’t really affect the experience. The dynamic navigation on my iphone was however key, especially in Istanbul to make sure we took the correct turnoffs, and navigating back if we took the wrong turnoff (happened once, because I was unable to switch lanes in time).


Our favorite foods

So, apart from the birding, I also place value in experiencing the local cuisine during my travels. Istanbul did not disappoint. I’m not sure how seasonal these are, but Lesley and I could not get enough glasses of freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice sold on the streets, while a cup of hot salep or apple tea was excellent to satisfy my sweet tooth on cooler winter nights (Lesley preferred the super-strong Turkish tea). Coffee was a bit hit or miss, as we often got instant coffee when we asked for turkish coffee. Our favorite starter was lentil soup, and you also can’t leave Istanbul without a good collection of Turkish delight. The main courses was also a bit of a hit and miss affair. Being vegetarian, Lesley’s options was rather limited. Her favorite was the Su böreği that we found on the Princes’ Islands, but an order of Su böreği during my second trip was spectacularly dry and oily. I definitely liked the different types of kebabs on offer, but this wasn’t much different from what’s on offer in the USA or even South Africa.


Separating Caspian Gull and Yellow-legged Gull

Separating between Caspian and Yellow-legged Gull posed the most serious identification challenge during our trip. The guidelines for most field-guides points towards differences in eye and feet color. Yet, some of the more important identification features are a bit more subtle than field guides suggest, particularly because of variations in size, plumage and bare part coloration. Moreover, it’s still hard to be sure of your identification without ample experience, or unless you have an opportunity to compare the two species side-by-side. Which is exactly the opportunity we had on the Princes’ Islands, where the importance of head structure in these gulls was quite apparent. Rather than summarizing information I found on the net, I provide resources I found useful. First, I found Mersey’s Gull Identification Pages a good resource to help set the stage, while useful specific treatments can be found here, here, and here, with additional treatments of Yellow-legged Gull here and here, and Caspian Gull here and here.


Annotated birdlist


*****To come soon*****


Birds we missed

Well, it would’ve been nice to have visited Istanbul during migration time or even summer. Or to head further east towards Ankara an beyond. But maybe not, because Lesley and I had a tremendously enjoyable time in Istanbul. So, apart from Yelkouan Shearwater which we knew was a inner city bird (and which we got), we never had specific targets during my first trip. My second trip of course was dedicated to Red-breasted Goose. We did not see it, but then again, Istanbul is not the prime destination for this species. So, in the end I’m not too terribly disappointed about anything. But I’m definitely look forward to a dedicated trip to Turkey in future.

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