4-7 May 2004

Mike Calderbank

A trip to Doushak (Erek dag) altitude: 2452 metres

This mountain, which dominates the Geok Dere region, is easy to climb but a long slog. My companion was Nicolay Nicolaevich Yefeemenko, a professional ornithologist, who knows more about the Turkmenian Kopet dag than any other human being. He carried an enormous rucksack bulging almost spherical while I managed 15 kg.

On the cultivated land near the last village we saw Rose-coloured Starlings Sturnus roseus and a Roller Coracius garrulus and in the short approach valley a pair of Stonechats Saxicola torquataEastern Pied Wheatear Oenanthe picata picata and Red-headed Buntings Emberiza bruniceps. The valley was churned up by muddy tracks of heavy plant excavating earth for the new recreational building project which will replace the old USSR summer camps. The route follows the central spine of the mountain, first up a narrow ridge. Abundant bushes in places, such as barbarissa, and the Turkmen (dwarf) maple. Nightingale Luscinia megarynchosOrphean Warbler Sylvia hortensisRock Bunting Emberiza ciaRock Nuthatch Sitta tephronota. Junipers begin appearing at 1200 meters and become more abundant as you climb. The spine broadens into steppe-like terrain. We saw a Woodlark Lullula arborea, a Skylark Alauda arvensis, a pair of Chaffinches Fringilla coelebsLinnet Carduelis cannabinaBlack-throated Thrush Turdus ruficollisMistle Thrush T.viscivorus, and White-backed Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis. At about 2300 meters we looked down the precipitous north face where a crowd of House Martins Delichon urbicaCrag Martins Ptyonoprogne rupestris and Common Swifts Apus apus were wheeling. In the air, Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos, a Buzzard Buteo buteoKestrels Falco tinnunculus, and a Black Kite Milvus migrans. From there we descended steeply to the south. This side is scored with deep ravines and we camped on a promontory between two of them. The site was chosen partly for a good view of nesting Peregrine Falcons Falco peregrinus , a species so rare here that some experts have doubted Nicolay’s claims. Further along the cliff there were nests of a Raven Corvus corax, and a Lammergeier Gypaetus barabtus (possibly the most threatened species in this region, Nicolay told me that he had placed food near the nest). And in a nearby ravine, previously the home of the same Peregrine, a Saker Falcon Falco cherrug nested. The night-time was enlivened by a chorus of Scops Owls Otus scops that seemed to be all around us and, at one moment very close, a Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. After a day resting, and watching the PeregrinesLammergeier, and Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus, a severe downpour of hail ruined our flimsy tent and we made a difficult change of residence along slippery mud slopes to a cave at the head of the ravine. There was a spring here also, which enabled Nicolay to store water for the summer at various sites, when the spring would be dry.

I woke up to the sight of a wild goat (Capra aegragus Ertleben) above me, as if painted against the precipice. The juniper forest was thickest on the south side and the next morning we examined a large tree, finding newly hatched chicks of the Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros. The loose bark of the older trees enable Black Redstarts and Wrens Troglodytes troglodytes to nest invisible in the interstices. A Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus was building its nest in the branches of another juniper and later occupied it. We set off down the ravine on a bright sunny day as heavy mist rose from the Firuza valley to the south which separates Doushak from the frontier ridge. We were delighted to see Alpine Accentors Prunella collaris rufilata as the presence of this bird (as opposed to Radde’s Accentor Prunella ocularis) in the Kopet dag has also been doubted; in addition to a Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis and its nest, a Wren and White-winged Grosbeak Mycerobas carnipes who winter up here in the juniper forest, Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, and a Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus. Descending into a shallower lusher valley we found Blackbird Turdus merulaWillow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Coal Tit Parus aterIsabelline Shrike Lanius isabellinus phoenicuroidesWoodpigeon Columba palumbus, and Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata; and the skull and huge curved horns of a mountain sheep (Ovis vignei Blyth), locally called Arkhar, increasingly rare.

Already time to leave our cave but, before going up, we crossed to another ravine so that Nicolay could show me the nest of a Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus in a juniper. Climbing above it, we managed to see one white egg but the bird flew. Shortly afterwards, in this remote place, we heard the loud cry of the Caspian Snowcock Tetrogallus caspius, another very rare species found only high up, which I had seen on my first trip up here three years earlier. After a desperate climb up to the summit ridge, we began the descent and were lucky to see a herd of galloping Arkhar.