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Rare Turkish bird haven under threat

By Sarah Rainsford
North-eastern Turkey

The birdwatchers at Kuyucuk lake rise with the sun.

Birdwatchers at Kuyucuk lake
The lake lies at a critical spot on the bird migration path
The water stretched out before them is covered with black dots that suddenly come alive as flocks of birds open their wings and soar into the early morning sky.

"I've never seen such a congregation of wildfowl in my life, it's phenomenal!" enthuses Glen, binoculars glued to his eyes - a spotter who has come to Turkey from Britain.

"The number of birds is overwhelming. It's awe-inspiring. I don't know where to look."

Kuyucuk lake, close to Turkey's border with Armenia, lies at a critical spot on the bird migration path between eastern Europe and Africa.

Almost 200 species stop here to feed, breed or rest en route, and the spotters have recorded 14 species that are globally endangered.

Ten rare white-headed duck are regular visitors to Kuyucuk and the orange-bodied ruddy shelduck, rarely seen in the wild in Europe, is in abundance here.

Grass greener

A small team of conservationists now work at the lake, documenting its rich population and battling to keep the birds' habitat intact.

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Fears for Turkey's great bird lake

For years, nearby villagers have led their cattle to graze by the water. They have chomped the tall reeds that once lined the shore to the roots, leaving little space for the birds to nest or breed in.

The conservationists have fenced off small zones to encourage re-growth.

But the wire has been cut in several places by local shepherds, convinced the grass on the forbidden side must be greener.

"People here say they are proud of the lake and support us," explains Dr Cagan Sekercioglu, who heads the lake conservation project for the KuzeyDoga Association.

"But if a shepherd's out here alone and he sees the nice green grass and reeds in our enclosure, he'll let the animals in. It's too tempting."

Trucker 'magnet'

Now a new threat to the lake is looming.

Marsh Harrier, at Kuyucuk lake (Image: Cagan Sekercioglu)
Conservation is still seen as a luxury in Turkey
Cagan Sekercioglu
Conservationist

The Turkish-Armenian border lies just 30km (19 miles) from Kuyucuk, but it was closed in the 1990s when Turkey sided with Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. Diplomatic relations were frozen.

But there are talks now about re-opening the border and re-establishing official ties.

Many locals support that and the surge in trade it is sure to bring. Ornithologists fear disaster.

A branch of the old road to Armenia already bisects the lake, but it is rarely used.

"That road would definitely be expanded if the border opens, then the whole lake area would be a magnet for truckers," Dr Sekercioglu says.

He worries the area will be developed - until hotels, shops and recreation facilities crowd the shoreline.

Legally, there is nothing to stop that.

Rare wetland

"The birds come here to rest," Dr Sekercioglu says. "They can't afford to waste valuable migration energy, fleeing from visitors. If they're constantly disturbed they can't stay here."

Alan Brooks measures a bird
Alan Brooks is one of the volunteers weighing and measuring birds

Almost 60% of Turkey's wetlands have disappeared in the past five decades - a result of irresponsible irrigation combined with climate change. That has made the struggle to save Kuyucuk for the birds more urgent.

Every so often a huge truck rumbles by loaded with construction materials for a new dam being built nearby.

The prospect of irrigation is encouraging villagers to plan more intensive farming, using fertilisers for the first time. If that happens, those chemicals are sure to contaminate the lake.

But on its shore the protection work goes on, to the constant honk of hundreds of shelduck.

Every hour, volunteers untangle birds from huge nets strung at various points on the lakeside. They weigh and measure them, then release them into the wild with a metal leg-ring to track their progress.

Ruddy shelducks
Ruddy shelduck are in abundance at Kuyucuk
"We want to see where they go, what the trends are and how global warming is affecting things," explains Alan Brooks, a volunteer from South Africa, who is dressed in shorts despite the biting cold.

"Tens of thousands of birds use this place. It's one of the few wetlands of its type left. We must preserve it. It's very important," Mr Brooks believes.

Dangerous time

The volunteers are true enthusiasts, able to swap bird stories non-stop and never tire.

But the team knows they need to infect the local villagers with some of their passion to have any chance of protecting Kuyucuk for the future.

"For now, people talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk," Dr Sekercioglu explains.

A volunteer measures a bird
Officials are considering granting the lake limited protection status

"Conservation is still seen as a luxury in Turkey," he says, though in Kuyucuk awareness is improving - encouraged by talk of eco-tourism and a potential income for the villagers.

Due to Dr Sekercioglu's tireless campaigning, Turkey's environment ministry has been considering granting the lake area limited protection status.

However, there are signs it may be faltering - and Dr Sekercioglu is worried.

"We've lost so many important conservation sites almost overnight in Turkey - and ones with far stricter protection than what's being considered for Kuyucuk," he says.

"Anything could happen here."

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