February/March 2005

Mike Calderbank

Kopet dag foothills, altitude 500-700 metres

25 February Geok Dere
Unsure about the visa extension, my wife and I lost little time in getting out to the Kopet Dag from Ashgabat. It was in any case a matter of finding out what places were accessible since a year ago a big building project had been initiated based on Archabil (formerly Firuza) and Geok Dere (formerly Chuli), the nearest approaches to the mountains. The once quiet winding valley road echoed with the roar of heavy lorries and their ballast. Fortunately, we were checked only once and allowed to proceed and we noted that most of the sentry boxes above the road had vanished since last year.

Parking by the stream for breakfast, we observed among the willow trees Great Tits Parus major, small flocks of Common Mynas Acridotherers tristis, a Blackbird Turdus merula, several Magpies Pica pica, and Hooded Crows Corvus (corone) cornix on the cliffs above. Fine views of the snow-covered crest to the south, including Chopan (2889 meters), the highest point of the Kopet Dag. Its summit is the border between Turkmenistan and Iran and special permission, rarely granted, is needed to climb it. On the other hand, Doushak (2452 meters), also called Erek Dag, from one of whose numerous canyons emerges the Chuli stream, is accessible and several of the valleys running up to the north face afford good bird watching. In one of them we quickly observed in the air two Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus, four Ravens Corvus corax, ten Red-billed Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax , and a Kestrel Falco tinnunculus. It was too early in the year for much bird life on the ground apart from the ubiquitous Chukar Alectoris chukar, one male Finch’s Wheatear Oenanthe finschii, that presumably had overwintered, a Black-throated Thrush Turdus ruficollis (passage migrant) and a flock of ten White-winged Larks Melanocorypha leucoptera, winter visitors, very active around the low bushes on the site of an old sheep enclosure.

1 March Berzengi
This is a pre-montane zone of rolling grassland with sparse low bushes and newly planted conifers just outside Ashgabat. It is scored with numerous shallow troughs full of the holes of a mouse-like creature Rhombomis opimus, which is prey to certain raptors. We surprised a pair of Long-legged Buzzards Buteo rufinus in one of them and a male Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in another. The newly arrived Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellinus nests in them and we saw three courting pairs. Another early arrival is the Black-billed Desert Finch Rhodospiza obsoleta (a flock of 12 on a single tiny bush!). Plus a solitary Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra, a male Kestrel, a flock of Siskin Carduelis spinusRock Pigeon Columba livia (60), six Woodlarks Lullula arborea, numerous Crested Larks Galerida cristataRooks Corvus frugilegus about to fly north, and Ravens.

5 March Geok Dere
In the absence of viable alternatives, we made again for Geok Dere. Near the Sekiz Yab river, on sandy ground we saw and photographed from our Neva jeep some Horned Larks Eremophila alpestris. Some of my closest-up photographs have been taken in this way, larks in particular seem indifferent to the proximity of a vehicle, even when it stops! We chose a different valley bordered by rock slopes raked at an angle of 45 degrees like the uncut steps of a stadium, small cliffs, plenty of vegetative cover in the form of tufts of marron grass and small mainly thorny bushes like wild almond. In the valley bottom, a usually dry bed, bordered with tamarisk, was full of pools from the melting snow from Doushak; there had been heavy falls this year. This time, there were plenty of birds in the air and on the ground. The Griffons appeared again, a Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus and two Long-legged Buzzards, and two Golden Eagles Aquila chysaetus were hunting quite close to the hillocks, one extraordinarily ragged, both the underside of the wing and particularly the tail. Is this a phenomenon of age or the result of a scrap? Passerines included many of the all-year round residents of the Kopet dag: Rock Nuthatch Sitta tephronotaFinsch’s WheatearRock Bunting Emberiza ciaLinnet Carduelis cannabinaStreaked Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta and Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillusIsabelline Wheatears and a Little Owl Athene noctua were also seen and, flying above the Chuli stream, a Grey Heron Ardea cinerea cinerea.

9 March Geok Dere
Eastern Pied Wheatear Oenanthe picata picata has appeared along with the Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitariusStonechat Saxicola torquata, and Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus. Wild almond now in flower. Much spectacular flying in pairs, especially the Long-legged Buzzards (2 or 3 pairs), also observed mating, and a pair of Saker Falcons Falco cherrug. The Rock Nuthatches (3 pairs) are already around the nest.

11 March
Alas, the visa is not extended but I hope to be back next year carrying on where I left off.