09/08/2002
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The Quest for Caspian Snowcocks

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As the plane glided out of the darkness on its descent to Antalya airport in southern Turkey, I knew that my hopes for the coming couple of weeks were at variance with all of my fellow passengers. Our journey had been achieved with the cheapest 'flight only' deal that we could lay our hands on, so there were no tour reps there to greet us as we passed through departures and into the heat of a Turkish dawn. The formalities of the hire car quickly completed, we drove out of the airport and headed east, away from the lure of the Euro, leaving the tourist-laden holiday hotels behind. On rapid Turkish roads we were quite quickly into the wide open expanses of this huge country, the driving refreshingly laid back after the rigidity of our own highways. The quest for the Caspian Snowcock was on!

Not only is Turkey a favourite holiday resort for many Europeans, it is also a fantastic country for birding. For listers, many species can be seen with relative ease in Turkey, which under the present political climate can be seen nowhere else. These species trip off the tongue like a lister's 'most wanted': Caucasian Black Grouse, See-see Partridge, Striated Scops Owl, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Red-tailed Wheatear, Mongolian Trumpeter Finch, Mountain Chiffchaff, Radde's Accentor, Crimson-winged Finch. All are magical birds, with magical names, frequently encountered in stunning settings, and all are perfect supplements to the travel experience off the tourist track. Despite all of these fantastic birds, I had one objective in mind. It had been 13 years since my last visit to Turkey when, despite a lot of effort, sweat and exertion resulting from our ascent into suitable habitat, Caspian Snowcocks had eluded me at their then only accessible site by the mountain village of Demirkazik.

Times change and new sites have been found for this enigmatic species, though the Aladag Mountians around Demirkazik, to the east of Nigde in central Turkey, have accounted for most birders' experience of the species on their travels. Others have been seen in the northeast of the country, but the slopes of this gorgeous mountain range have accommodated the sweat and aches of some of the most famous birders in their quest for this enigmatic mountain species. The quest got so much easier recently through the discovery of a 'new' site for Caspian Snowcocks several kilometres north of Demirkazik. In August 2000, two Israeli birders, Ady and Keren Gancz, discovered what is now the most easily accessible location for this species anywhere within its restricted Middle Eastern range. With this news, so evaporated the need for several hours' scramble along rough mountain tracks and scree slopes – it was now possible to drive to within touching distance of the mountain peaks of this superb bird.

Quite why the Caspian Snowcock is such an attraction for visiting birders is a bit of a mystery. It is a huge snow-partridge, generally greyish at rest, but with a large white wing panel in flight. Its distribution is fragmented, with populations of unknown size in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan. It is best known in Turkey, where BWP puts the population at between 200 and 2000 pairs, these birds being resident and altitudinal migrants across their range. So what makes this bird so special in the hearts of birders? To my mind the answer is simple. Think of the remote mountain slopes that this bird inhabits, with stunning peaks and searing valleys. Add the difficulty of actually venturing out to try and see one of these elusive birds, coupled with the effort of climbing high enough to enter its vertigo-inducing home and, like mountainous species across the globe, this remoteness and their restricted range make such species an attractive quarry to the travelling birder. Just being in the habitat of such species is an adrenalin rush in its own right, never mind the feeling of being somewhere 'special' on our ever-shrinking planet. This is no 'stop and tick' species; to see Caspian Snowcocks involves effort, and species that have to be worked for are always the most rewarding and memorable.

Caspian Snowcocks are found in the area between the treeline and snow, so the less snow the higher the birds retreat, ensuring that the task for visiting birders during the summer months has involved a substantial amount of climbing in the past. Now, thanks to the discovery of the 'new' site things are different, and as we settled into the Safak Pansiyon near Demirkazik, the home of the Hasan Safak and his family, we were excited at the prospect of our early start and comforted by Hasan's words that the snowcocks had been showing well this summer. Hasan has been taking birders to see snowcocks for many years and the guest book reads like a 'Who's Who' of late-20th-century birding. With birding, however, nothing is ever straightforward is it, and several comments along the lines of "no snowcocks seen today despite much effort" brought me back to reality as we sat on the verandah under the forbidding peak of Mount Aladag. During the late afternoon a severe storm had raged around the mountains and by dusk the periodic lightening flashes lit up the mountains like giant floodlights. Never mind the supposedly 'bad' time of year for mountain species, what if the storm is still present in the morning - would I be foiled yet again?

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The alarm shattered my dreams at 03:30. Momentary disorientation was quickly replaced by the excitement of the day ahead. Strangely, it is so much easier getting up at daft times when there is something special in store! An early morning coffee quickly brought the senses together as we sat huddled in the main area of the house. The night was still, but cool, with a blackness that can only be found where artificial light does not pollute the sky. Outside, our breath hung in the air, though our multiple layers and borrowed thick coats thwarted the chill. The engine started as our carriage to the snowcocks penetrated the still air and dampened the distant barking of village dogs. We climbed gingerly aboard to our seats on top of the pallet of wood which Hasan had carefully strapped to the back of his tractor. The gears were engaged, and we were off, bags and scope wedged firmly beneath our outstretched limbs, our bodies wedged against each other, and the foam mattress for support.

Overhead, the sky was pierced with what seemed like a million stars. My fears of the previous evening were unfounded as the sky glistened for as far as we could see. The view upwards proved ample distraction from the cool air whipping around us as we headed north for several kilometres, before the tractor swung a sharp right onto an unsurfaced track. In the black of the night there was little to distract us, as our bodies violently jolted in response to unseen rocks and troughs. A light shone from the darkness as a shepherd acknowledged our presence, but more disturbing was the sudden arrival from the blackness of two huge mastiffs bounding effortlessly after the tractor, snapping and snarling – an inopportune time to fall I mused to myself. Then, as they gave up the chase I mocked them before thinking better of it - just in case we happened to break down! "Birders eaten by Savage Dogs" ran the newspaper headline in my head. I needn't have worried, the tractor pounded on into the weakening grip of the night, the bumps impacting more and more upon my contorted body. It was fading into twilight when the tractor paused and then lurched off the track. I hoped we had reached our destination, but the tractor had switched onto an even steeper track. I groaned as I realised from maps I had studied of the site that we had reached the steep track up from the 'saddle'. This section of the route was the roughest yet, as the tractor strained to overcome the ascent, with a number of sizeable rocks as unwelcome obstructions. As the sun shone its first shafts of light over the mountains we reached our destination. We were at the disused chromium mine at an altitude of some 3,500 metres. Mentally I crossed my fingers that all this effort and pain would reap rewards.

Caspian Snowcock habitat
Photo: Russell Slack

Mountains offer an imposing stillness during their benign times. The quiet of the sunrise was punctuated by the trilling of Alpine Accentors, several of which were around us. On the ridges, distant shapes of Red-billed Choughs were silhouetted. The place was an awesome spectacle, with rising peaks, and to the side of the track, deep, deep valleys. The herds below looked like a swarm of ants. I could scarcely believe that we had ascended to this altitude in a tractor – clearly this is not a venture for those suffering from vertigo! What seemed like an eternity, but was most probably a matter of minutes, passed before the coldness of the dawn was pierced by the joyous Curlew-like song of a Caspian Snowcock. Our senses heightened, Hasan and I began scanning the ridges for the source of this intrusive eerie sound. It is no easy matter looking for a greyish bird in a grey rocky environment, but as I looked towards the rising sun I noticed a 'blob' on top of a distant pinnacle. I quickly switched to the scope to make out the silhouette of a snowcock, only to have the bird fling itself off the rock in a suicidal leap amid a mocking cackle as it descended out of sight. I was elated, but at the same time disappointed; I knew that some birders fail to see snowcocks and wondered if that would be the reward for our efforts.

Caspian Snowcock
Photo: Russell Slack
Caspian Snowcock
Photo: Russell Slack

I needn't have worried. Within minutes several birds began to respond to the harbinger of the rising sun and Hasan located another individual by one of the old mine buildings. Although distant I could clearly see that it was a superb grey Caspian Snowcock and I savoured the views as it remained out in the open. Every so often it called, and as it did so it would arch its body and throw back its head as the bill opened to give the distinctive mournful call. We decided to try and get closer, but even minimal exertion at such an altitude required a pause before attempting to look through the scope. As time progressed other birds began calling from the crags just above us. Every so often tantalising flight views were obtained as birds cackled during their short flight on bowed wings with their large tell-tale white wing panels. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts these birds always landed out of view, until we managed to locate one bird clambering around the cliffs at around 75-m range. It was completely out in the open and we were allowed superb views as it clambered about, picking at the seeds on several plant heads before it wandered into a crevice and a likely nest site. Better was to come as in between flight views another bird clambered onto an exposed pinnacle at even closer range and superb views down to 60 m were savoured as it roamed about, before sitting on the rock and falling asleep. By mid-morning we had seen up to eight different birds, possibly more, and had heard several others. The whole experience was captivating, conducted amid stunning scenery and an azure blue sky.

With the warmth beginning to penetrate even the most sheltered crevices, snowcock activity diminished and by the time we left all was quiet in the peaks. The journey back to Safak Pansiyon was not one to be relished, but we arrived back to be greeted by a hearty breakfast, with my own pleasure that the ghost of 13 years ago had been comprehensively laid to rest, as I'd succeeded in obtaining views of one of the most elusive species in the Western Palearctic.

For more information on staying at Safak Pansiyon or more details on seeing Caspian Snowcocks in the area, contact Hasan Safak at hsafak@e-kolay.net.

Written by: Russell Slack