Voyages in Turkey, told through 10 birds

Seagull flies past Istanbul historic skyline

A hoopoe perches on a rock while exploring an ancient site. An early morning run is interrupted by a chance encounter with an owl. And while travelling by ferry across continents, seagulls and cormorants compete for attention with world heritage monuments.

In five years living in and travelling around Turkey, I found places I visited would be marked by a memorable encounter with one specific bird that remained stencilled the memory as much as the historical site that had been the purpose of the visit. And birds occupy a very special place in Turkey. Its landmass stretches west to east from the Balkans to the Caucasus and north to south from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. As a result, its avifauna is diverse and widespread. Turkey’s position as as bridge between Europe and Asia has as much impact on nature as it does on politics and society, with an avifauna familiar to northern Europe mixing with species more associated with the south and east.

Even in a mega-city like Istanbul birds are very much part of the fabric of the urban landscape with seagulls perching on rooftops, cormorants fishing in the Golden Horn and shearwaters darting through the Bosphorus. Wherever I travelled in Turkey, birds left their mark on both the landscape and the imagination. Serious birdwatchers will do way better than me — I don’t have a telescope and in the haste of a departure of a trip often left even my binoculars at home.

But this is about how landscape, history and nature merge and how we should always have our eyes open.

1/ A Hoopoe in Dalyan.

I just love Hoopoes, their long beaks and flash of feathers bringing glamour and exoticism wherever they land. When I was young, seeing a Hoopoe would net you the top score in a series of British kids spotting books called I-Spy. But ever seeing one in the UK seemed an unattainable dream. In Turkey, however, they are relatively commonly encountered and this one perched in a tree at the ancient ruins of Kaunos outside the riverside resort of Dalyan, itself one of the best places in the country to watch waterbirds.

2/A Little Owl in Kapikri village, Aegean region

It is so beautiful to suddenly see, out of nowhere, a bird only familiar from books. This happened to me early one morning in the beautiful Turkish village of Kapikiri, on Bafa Lake, when I was taking a morning run. Suddenly, a Little Owl rushed out and perched on a branch obediently for photos, with the piercing, unflinching gaze of someone met in a distant past. This single encounter alone made the entire trip worthwhile.

3/ Storks wheeling over Istanbul

Twice a year, vast gatherings of storks cloud the Istanbul skyline as they migrate to and then back from their summer breeding grounds in Turkey and the Balkans. Their passage is a ritual event for residents of the city and something everyone who lives in Istanbul needs to witness at least once. Amid a frenetic pace of change, this is eternal. Here they came right over the historic centre, allowing me to watch in astonishment at the spectacle from my own window.

4/ A Wheateater in Capadoccia

Everyone adores Cappadocia the region in central Turkey famous for its extraordinary rock formations and cave churches. It’s easily accessible and offers spectacular nature that is easily and safely accessible. It’s rich in birdlife and I just love walking around and waiting to see what will plant itself on the next rock. Here a Wheateater obligingly poses.

5/ Flamingos on Bafa Lake

I had never seen a flamingo outside of a zoo until I visited Bafa Lake in November, hoping I might be lucky to see a few. In the end, large flocks gathered around the edge of the lake in a rewarding and easy spectacle. The locals are non-plussed, as are the birds, but as so often in Turkey it’s beautiful to be able to watch such creatures in such a safe and accessible environment.

6/ A goldfinch in Selçuk

Sometimes in Turkish pet shops and the bazaar, I have seen the troubling sight of goldfinches crammed into tiny cages for the benefit of collectors. The creature’s fabled beauty can be a curse. Far better to see this most bewitching of garden birds outside, where it jumps in flocks of a few dozen from branch to branch. This one on the beautiful country walk from Selçuk town to the ancient site of Ephesus.

7/Pelicans on Bafa Lake

It took me a while to find out about the existence of Bafa Lake but once discovered it became a favourite weekend retreat less than one hour drive from Bodrum airport. It is wild and beautiful and on the northern shore (without a road) extremely peaceful. If flamingos are there over the winter, pelicans are there for the summer. They languidly swim on the lake in the burning midday heat and then take off, beating those massive wings once or twice before beautifully gliding over the surface.

8/ Storks in Selçuk

The familiarity of the sight does not lessen how special it is. Two storks, who have paired for life, building their nest. It is one of the regular features of the Turkish summer in the villages, as the birds proceed with their business above as the humans do below. This pair have taken up residence on top of a Roman column in Selçuk.

9/A seagull in Istanbul

Istanbul is buzzing with seabirds: cormorants, herons and coots throng the Bosphorus, especially in the winter. But it is the humble seagull that is the most essential part of the city, waking up residents with its morning mews and then ever present in every corner. It is pretty easy to take a picture of the famous landmarks (here the Galata Tower) and find one flying happily past your lens in spectacular juxtaposition.

10/ A Hoopoe in Van.

No apologies for twice including the beautiful Hoopoe. This one is from another place one would not go to specifically for birds but is still rich in life — the castle in the old city of Van on the lake of the same name in southeast Turkey. Its rocks bake in the day but around are lush fields as the lake shimmers beyond.

Foreign correspondent and voyager. Worked and lived in Iran, Russia and Turkey. At home in Istanbul but always moving.