Dawn on day 3 (21st May) in our last 50-km square that encompasses the bare hills of Bozdağ Milli Parkı east of Konya across flat agricultural land to the small town of Eşmekaya and the southern edge of Tuz Golu. The shepherds are out on the steppes; those we meet are from Afghanistan.
The first 1-km square is part steppe and part agriculture. The fields are full of calandra larks and the steppe, short-toed larks and isabelline wheatear. A Yayla or upland summer grazing settlement is fenced with barns and small house. The herd has left leaving a carpet of dung. The birds make hay and include rock sparrow, starling and little owl. A pair of red-billed chough are disturbed and depart but this is a likely feeding or possible breeding site. Red-backed shrike and a huge short-toed eagle that lumbers low across the fields add to the interesting list.
The hills of Bozdağ Milli Parkı (National Park) are smooth and bare with little vegetation presumably because of the grazing pressure from domestic herds of sheep and goats. This is a reserve for the endemic Konya sheep. Our 1-km square is just a few larks and wheatears and hot-going in the sun.
The next 1-km squares is intensive agriculture with a family, probably Syrian refugees, working on the field hoeing the crop. There is an echo of Van Gogh’s peasant women drawings in the back-aching stoop of one of the group. Here there are the usual larks and buntings and a few common butterflies and silver Y moths.
We head east to the town of Eşmekaya and its adjacent marshes, which are together formally classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) based on the population of breeding and wintering waterbirds, Montagu’s harrier and lesser kestrel. It is dry and the likelihood is that the irrigation has lowered the water table and so has turned the wetland to a dusty pasture. At least the IBA has been conserved by being designated as a nature reserve and so the wetland may be restored one day. A single Montagu’s harrier flies through but does not appear to stop.
We search but find no lesser kestrels breeding in the town and there have been none in all the villages we check roundabout. In 1993, there was a good population in this part of central Turkey and this appears to have gone or at best be much reduced. The numbers of little owls appear reduced too, but hoopoes are still everywhere.
Our final transect is on the southern edge of Tuz Golu, where short-toed larks sing and a gull-billed tern hunts. Distant villages hug the edge of the depression but the lack of water has reduced the lake to a fraction of its size and the land to a weed-filled plain. A fox leaps away from its sunny daytime resting place.
Finally, we check the narrow drain that apparently carries sewage some 70km from Konya to Tuz Golu. We shadow the section from Golyazi east towards Tuz and find a few waterbirds and terrapin in the reed-lined channel. The channel cuts through an enormous swathe of steppe and salt steppe, hopefully a few great bustards survive hereabouts.
The impression left after three days of surveys and after an absence of close to a quarter of a century is of a much modified natural environment in the lowlands, where great wetlands and steppes have been replaced by a landscape rich in cereal crops, in which farmers and farmers’ towns are prospering. There are lines of bright red tractors for sale on the high street, new hospitals and schools; and a vast hinterland where refugees from neighbouring Syria are afforded sanctuary and offered work. At the same time, many isolated villages are emptying as young people head for the cities to find a different life. The foothills are now changing with an increasing reach of irrigation, mechanisation and the obvious spread of new orchards. The pattern is well known; as in many developed countries, only the uplands remain a significant natural refuge.