Birding in the Clouds

The city of Bursa lies within a wide river valley, guarded to the north and south by mountains.  The city itself is nestled against the imposing Uludağ (oo-loo-dah), a goliath of rock towering 2,543m above the city.  In the summer, the mountain is a popular camping and trekking destination; in the winter it is a skier’s paradise, with numerous ski resorts and slopes to master.

Mt. Uludağ high above the city of Bursa

Uludağ is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, and is one of the best birding sites in Bursa.  The slopes of the mountain are covered with dense mixed deciduous/coniferous forests, giving way to entirely coniferous as the elevation increases.  As one nears the highest peak, Kartaltepe, the forests recede and boulder-strewn meadows mark the start of the alpine zone.  Only the hardiest lifeforms eke out a living up here.

One of the best ways to enjoy Uludağ is to take the Teleferik, an aerial tramway that runs 8.8km from the Teferrüç station in Bursa to the Bölge Oteller station at the base of the Kartaltepe peak. The Teleferik is the second longest aerial tramway in the world currently operating, second only to the Norsjö tramway in Sweden.  More information on logistics and getting to/from Uludağ at the end of the post.

Teferrüç Station at the base of Uludağ

Hop aboard!

The ride from between the two end stations will take approximate 22 minutes, but it is by far the most scenic way to experience Uludağ.  There is a stop about halfway at Sarıalan, where campgrounds, equipment rentals, and restaurants can be found.  Be sure to hold on to your ticket stub; you won’t be able to re-board the Teleferik without one!

Going up…

Nearing the top of the mountain, Bursa lays stretched out below you

I wanted to get out one last time to Uludağ before winter sets in.  The weather has taken on a chill, and although the sun is still warm, temperatures struggle to make it above 10°C.  While this is nothing compared to the winters in Canada where I first got into birding, for the local Turks this is considered quite “cold.”  Many of the migrants are gone now, and only the hardy overwintering and resident birds still hang on at Uludağ.

I took a chance this past Sunday, hoping that the promised clearing skies would yield some good birds on the mountain.  I wanted to track down the resident dunnocks that live around the Bölge Oteller station at the base of the Kartaltepe peak.  I got off at the Sarıalan station at the halfway point; currently the Teleferik only runs from Teferrüç to Sarıalan, but dolmuşes (minibuses) are available to ferry passengers to Bölge Oteller for 3₺ ($1 USD).

The first thing I noticed when getting off the Teleferik was how quiet it was.  There was a crisp wind coming from the east, and other than several bundled up Turks and a few vehicles, there was little activity.  I decided to hike around the area first, using the daylight to my advantage and heading into the forests.  My first birds were the sporadic flights of winter finches, mainly Eurasian siskin, that feed on the abundant cone seeds that cover the tops of the trees.  There were also the occasional European serin and red crossbill, though these were the exceptions – siskins were to be the Finch of the Day!

Eurasian Siskin (Spinus spinus)

Further into the forest led to scattered foraging flocks of coal tit.  Preferring coniferous forests, these small birds are common throughout the year at Uludağ, and can often be the most common bird seen (or heard) in the forests.  Watching the coal tits, a few great tits and goldcrest were also spotted.  I was hoping to stumble onto a common firecrest, a close relative to the goldcrest, but once again this tiny bird proved to be elusive.  Perhaps next time…

Coal Tit (Periparus ater derjugini)

One of the big draws to Uludağ for me is the abundance of a Turkish specialty.  Although Turkey doesn’t have any truly endemic bird species, the majority of the world’s population of one particular bird can only be found within it’s borders: the Krüper’s nuthatch.  With very small populations in Greece and Georgia, the bulk of all Krüper’s nuthatches live within Turkey.  Though small, these nuthatches can be found fairly easily around Uludağ, and can be quite vocal throughout the year.

Krüper’s Nuthatch (Sitta krueper)

As it was getting on in the day, I decided to hop on a dolmuş and head up to Bölge Oteller to look for the dunnock I had come all this way to find.  Bölge Oteller is the ski resort area on Uludağ; it is just below the treeline and the start of the ski slopes.  The wind was much stronger up here, and there was significantly less activity than in Sarıalan.  Despite going through some nice looking habitat, the only things I found were more of the same: Eurasian siskins, coal tits, and Krüper’s nuthatches.

Although the habitat looks good, it was just too windy for the dunnock

Eurasian siskins could be found along the roadways, eating the cone seeds that fell from the strong winds

A Krüper’s nuthatch gives me a farewell portrait

Although I never did find my sought-after dunnock, it was still nice to get out of the apartment and brave the autumn air.  As winter approaches, I don’t know if I’ll get up to Uludağ again before the snows start to fall and the skiers descend in droves.

GETTING THERE

The Teferrüç station, start of the Teleferik tramway, can be reached by public transportation by taking the dolmuş marked “Teleferik” from the Yüksek İhtisas Metro station.  The dolmuş will cost about 2.25₺ ($0.75 USD).  A round-trip ticket for the Teleferik costs 35₺/person ($12 USD); be sure to hold on to your ticket or you will have to buy another one to get back down.

Both Sarıalan and Bölge Oteller are accessible by car.  Be advised the roads are narrow and winding; in winter it is recommended to have chains on your tires.  There are also dolmuşes available in downtown Bursa which will take you to the top of Uludağ, though I do not know where to pick these up or how much it costs.  I do know that the dolmuşes typically do not depart until they are full, so you may be waiting around for awhile during the off-season.

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Birding in Ruins

The shirt says it all…

I’ve been fortunate enough to go birding in some amazing places.  While I’m not even close to a Big Lister (though I have met the biggest Big Lister in history!), I’m always keeping my lists up to date, regardless of where I happen to find myself.  I’ve seen a lot of new and interesting birds at some of the most mundane locations imaginable: great-tailed grackle in the parking lot of the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas; Javan myna outside a subway station in Taipei; a group of nēnē, or Hawaiian geese, at a golf course on Kauai.  You simply never know where the next great sighting is going to occur!

So as my long-suffering wife will grudgingly admit, I’m birding even as we speak.

Let me set the scene: a nice 4-day weekend holiday to the Aegean Sea, courtesy of Republic Day in Turkey.  We travel to the town of Bergama, site of the ancient Acropolis of Pergamon, the remains of a settlement dating back to the early 10th Century BCE.

Pergamon sits atop a small promontory above the modern town of Bergama.  Although much of the settlement has been reduced to ruin from the effects of earthquakes and time, it’s not difficult to imagine what life might have been like when Pergamon was thriving.  During the height of its power, the city had an estimated 200,000 inhabitants.

Narrow corridors wind throughout Pergamon

The Theatre, overlooking modern day Bergama

The Theatre, overlooking modern day Bergama

It’s difficult to explain how it feels to walk through these ancient ruins, knowing they have been here so much longer than my own country ever existed.  Then my reverie is broken by a bubbling trill to the north.  Over there, behind those rocks.

Western Rock Nuthatch (Sitta neumayer syriaca)

Spotting a medium-sized nuthatch amid a plateau of strewn rocks is no easy challenge.  Luckily, the western rock nuthatch likes to sing from exposed perches on cliff walls or atop boulders on the ground.  This bird has adapted to the semi-arid environments of Turkey’s western and central provinces; a similar looking species, the eastern rock nuthatch, can be found in similar habitat in eastern Turkey, Georgia, and Syria.  If I wait around patiently, I might be able to get a decent photo of this unique bird…and so goes the sightseeing for a time.

The nuthatch comes to investigate me as it flits about looking for food

Eventually I do remember that I, in fact, have a wife, who is somewhere nearby wondering (for the millionth time) why she married one of those weird bird people in the first place.  I leave the rock nuthatch to do its thing, and I scramble over the rocks to continue doing my thing.  I come over a small rise and see…

The Trajaneum, or Sanctuary of Trajan

Well, that stops me in my tracks for a moment.  Staring at the white marble columns in the sunlight, my eyes nevertheless switch almost instantaneously to movement on the left.  And here we go again.

More nuthatches?

No, this one’s too small.  It’s very fast, flitting around, never staying put for more than a few seconds.  Darts out into the air and snatches some unseen insect.  Ah, a flycatcher.  Back in North America, flycatchers can be pretty dull and uninteresting to look at (on the average).  But in Europe and Asia, flycatchers become just as colorful and vocal as our most beautiful wood-warblers.

As I watch this female black redstart, tan brown with a bright orange splash of color under her tail, I notice a few more redstarts about.  Then a dark male bird pops up on a small rock, overlooking the area.  He’s the one I’m after, so I get the camera ready and fire away.

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros gibraltariensis)

It turns out that these redstarts are by far the most common birds in the area, and I’ll see around 25 of them before the day is through.  While there are birds around, the wind coming up the promontory is quite strong.  After nearly losing my hat twice, I begin to understand why the birds I do see are staying low, hugging the ground, or just staying put under cover.  A lone male blue rock thrush, singing quietly to himself, surveys the Theatre and the town of Bergama down below.  A northern raven glides overhead, using the steady wind to drift in the air.

And then I hear a sound over the wind.  It’s a different sound, not like anything else I’ve heard today.  And a little bit of tracking reveals three sombre tits in some scrubby shrubs near the edge of the promontory.  These are birds I was hoping to run across on this trip – they’re hard to come by around where I live in Bursa, but they’re more common along the western coast of Turkey.

Sombre Tit (Poecile lugubris anatoliae)

These three birds were all juveniles, as indicated by their brownish coloration.  Adult sombre tits resemble large Carolina chickadees, more greyish in tone.  Not to be outdone, another male black redstart came in to feed on some small flying insects, using a nearby boulder as a launch pad for his aerial strikes.

One can see how the black redstart uses his color to camouflage

Although I ended the day with a scant 9 species, due largely to the strong wind and remote habitat, it’s opportunities like this that make birding such a rewarding and accessible activity.  You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment; you don’t have to travel to exotic locations.  Places you never thought of as having wildlife of any kind can often surprise you, if you have patience and a good pair of eyes to see.