The ongoing Turkey Breeding Bird Atlas project involves two visits, one in spring and a second in summer, to a chequer board sample of 50km-squares across the country within which records are kept of all bird species observed or heard during the course of a day. Within two 10-km squares, two 1-km squares are selected and a transect walked for up to an hour within each and the numbers and breeding status of all bird species recorded. The same 50-km square is surveyed and four transects walked on the second visit.
Over three days (19th – 21st May), Gernant and I undertake the first visit to three 50-km squares located south of Tuz Gölü (salt lake). The first 50-km square encompasses the low hills to the east of Karapinar and then across swathes of irrigated agriculture and steppe grassland around Ereğli.
At dawn, we visit the first 10-km square which is located around the small village of Beyören; it sits at the end of the narrow road in a line of hills above an endless plain. The village is old with many abandoned buildings, but some houses are recently restored; the stonework is often remarkably precise. Poplars and other broadleaved trees surround the village. Tezek, or hand made manure pats, dry on stone walls and the sweet, pleasant smell fills the air; it is not unlike peat burning in equally remote villages in the far west of Ireland.
The first 1-km square transect is within the narrow valley leading to the village; stony and difficult to traverse, the upper slopes riddled with a tall, yellow Verbascum and full of short-toed larks, black-eared and isabelline wheatears. A rock nuthatch calls from a small bluff and for a while sits on top; a long-legged buzzard with a likely nest rises and circles in the still air.
The second 1-km square is above the village within rolling green pastures and a patch of broadleaved woodland, grazed by herds of sheep with shepherds on donkeys. Here there are more wheatears, including northern, as well as a blue rock thrush, singing bimaculated larks and a tawny pipit. Spiked speedwell is common and Glanville fritillary is present in small numbers.
The woodland holds cuckoo and lesser whitethroat as well as a large tortoise. A swarm of tan brown beetles is attracted to the white car. Small, day flying moths are common on the grass step. We find a crimson-winged finch as we leave.
In the old village, there are many breeding starlings, swallows, house and rock sparrows; cuckoo, golden oriole and hoopoe call from the trees.
Onto the second 10-km square: the flat plain to the north of Ereğli is intensive agriculture and the first 1-km walk is only remarkable for its dullness. Isabelline wheatears and short-toed larks are on small patches of steppe and calandra larks within and around the cultivated land. A single, sad white stork forages on the steppe.
The second 1-km square was, by chance, a huge area of grazed steppe grassland hidden behind more agricultural land. Here, sousliks (European ground squirrels) stand on hind feet and run to their burrows; their short squeaks give away their location. Scanning the steppe and suddenly a tiny bearlike animal is staring at us with only its black face and white ears above an earthen parapet; it is staring at us, stock still. This is a marbled polecat with its marmalade body and black and white head; it is a remarkable and beautiful animal; normally nocturnal, it seems intent on leaving the burrow with a fast, skulking gait but then returns; it may have young to care for or want to move them to a different burrow, hence the daytime activity, and our presence is holding things up. Marbled polecats hunt the large population of susliks that are everywhere in this patch of steppe.
In the distant haze, a preening long-legged buzzard does a very good impression of a great bustard but there are no further surprises. The ground is full of displaying and singing greater short-toed and lesser short-toed larks; we spend time trying to separate them on their different calls. Lesser (or Asian) trills away and is a great mimic and greater has a shorter, punchier call. There are also good number of isabelline wheatears which display with a wonderful parachute like flight and the call includes some far carrying wolf whistles. The ground also has a good population of day flying moths.
The survey protocol of following the GPS to randomly selected 1-km squares takes us to new areas, many of course quite ordinary, but some exceptional and most memorable.
On the way south to the mountains at the end of the day, we pass small encampments of Syrian refugees that live by the roadside in lines of plastic tents but with new sanitation blocks and water on tap. Many of the families appear to work in the fields. Turkey has taken in some two million Syrians and many are dispersed across the vast agricultural landscape of Central Anatolia.