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.

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