Birding Istanbul, Turkey: A trip report
Updated: Nov 27, 2019
Birding in Constantinople, a trip report by Ed Jenkins
A trip to England to visit family for the holidays gave us the opportunity to take a brief honeymoon in Europe before returning to the United States. As we were keen to immerse ourselves in a different culture with the accompanying sights, smells, and sounds, we settled on Istanbul, Turkey. This trip had foremost a cultural focus, but we hoped to observe some local wildlife while there. Istanbul is not known for great bird diversity in winter, it is a modern mega-city after all, however while exploring this fascinating ancient metropolis we did manage to see some iconic birds. Pre-trip research on eBird, blogs, and trip reports, suggested Istanbul would not provide exciting birding opportunities and this was mostly correct. While species diversity was low (46 species), birds were a constant presence.
Hooded crows, jackdaws, magpies, house sparrows, starlings and laughing doves were common throughout the centre of Istanbul, while yellow-legged and Caspian gulls were ever-present overhead. Great tits and chaffinches could be found anywhere with some vegetation. The terrace at the Galley Hotel afforded views over the disused railway and (heavily used) motorway to the Sea of Marmara, which was constantly alive with gulls and passing sinensis cormorants and desmarestii shags. This was the only place we saw pygmy cormorants and white wagtails. Black-headed gulls dominated the waterways of the city, with rough counts of up to 25,000 feeding around purse-seine fishing boats. Careful scanning during a few seawatch sessions revealed common, slender-billed, and Mediterranean gulls among them, with a single second calendar year Pallas’s gull being my personal highlight and the only new species of the trip. We concluded that ~75% of the large gulls present were yellow-legged gulls, with Caspian making up the remainder, but did not study them too closely. Bottlenose dolphins were seen multiple times in the area where the Bosphorus meets the Sea of Marmara, often worryingly close to purse-seine nets.
The Gülhane Park in the Topkapi Palace complex had the only collared doves, black redstart and common mynas of the trip, while the high-pitched screaming of parakeets (ring-necked and a single Alexandrine) were heard throughout the city. A welcome surprise was some raptor migration, with common buzzards seen heading east towards Asia on three separate days (9 individuals total), including a good candidate for rough-legged buzzard/hawk. Other brief and unique sightings in the city include goldfinch and serin.
The Bosphorus cruise revealed two great-crested grebes in the centre of the channel, as well as hundreds of Yelkouan shearwaters on the wing (heading in both directions), with flocks passing constantly throughout the day. These small shearwaters breed in the Mediterranean and winter in the brackish Black Sea, a unique migration strategy among seabirds and a species I studied closely in Malta. Two small flocks of coots in the more sheltered bays on the European side were also seen. The terminus of the cruise was the small village of Anadolu Kavaği, and although run down and overrun with both the military and feral dogs, it provided our only chance to wander through some native woodland while overlooking the Black Sea. The vegetation held numerous robins, blackbirds, and jays, as well as a European treecreeper, while a northern goshawk and sparrowhawk circled overhead. A huge flock of ~350 woodpigeons powered over the ridge at one point, only to be met by the shots of hunters waiting presumably for them. A high-flying raven was a surprise.
January 2nd: We flew with British Airways, landing in Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, at dusk. After taking the metro to Yenikapi station and walking for 20 minutes we arrived at our Airbnb for the week, the Galley Hotel on the shore of the Sea of Marmara in the Sultanahmet District. Temperatures fluctuated between -2-8 degrees °C over the week, with icy drizzle common and some snow.
January 3rd: Our first day was spent exploring the most famous ancient sites in the old city, the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, and the sprawling Topkapi Palace and its many historic buildings. After a lunch overlooking the Bosphorus Strait we visited the spice bazaar before walking across the Galata Bridge and climbing the Galata Tower at sunset.
January 4th: To escape the morning drizzle, we headed for the Archaeology Museum and wiled away the hours learning about Turkish and Middle-Eastern history, from pre-historic periods through to the Ottoman Empire. The weather cleared and we wondered through the city going first down into the eerie Basilica Cistern, before getting lost in the chaotically wonderful Grand Bazaar and finally ending up at the Süleymaniye Mosque with its breath-taking architecture and views over the city.
January 5th: We headed to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in the morning, a converted Sultan’s Palace filled with artfully displayed artifacts such as brightly painted Qur’ans and many of the blue Iznik blue tiles that we had been admiring at the Topkai Palace and various mosques. Heavy rain doused the city in the afternoon but, not to be put off, we wandered through Gülhane Park.
January 6th: We had long planned a river trip up the Bosphorus Strait to the Black Sea and waited for a day with decent weather. While the temperatures stayed low and the sun mostly refused to emerge from the leaden clouds, we happily spent six hours aboard a commuter ferry plying the waters separating Europe from Asia. After a short time in the small fishing village of Anadolu Kavaği, enjoying views of the Black Sea, we returned on the same ferry to Istanbul.
January 7th: After a morning exploring the Grand Bazaar and the adjoining book bazaar we returned to the airport and, after a slight delay, flew back to Heathrow.
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus). 2 on the Bosphorus
Feral Pigeon (Columba livia). Common everywhere
Common Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus). Multiple flocks over Anadolu Kavaği
Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto). 3 at Gülhane Park
Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis). Common everywhere
Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra). Bosphorus
Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei). 1 on the Bosphorus
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). Common everywhere
Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus). Bosphorus
Pallas’s Gull (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus). 1 on the Bosphorus
Common Gull (Larus canus). Bosphorus
Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis). Common everywhere
Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans). Common everywhere
Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis). Bosphorus
Yelkouan Shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan). Bosphorus
Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmeus). Sea of Marmara
Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). Bosphorus
European Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis). Bosphorus
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea). Topkapi Palace
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus). 1 at Anadolu Kavaği
Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). 1 at Anadolu Kavaği
Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus). 1 over Istanbul
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo). 9 in total over Istanbul
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). 1 over Usküdar (Asian side)
Alexandrine Parakeet (Psittacula eupatria). 1 in Istanbul
Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameria). Common everywhere
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius). Anadolu Kavaği
Common Magpie (Pica pica). Common everywhere
Eurasian Jackdaw (Corvus monedula). Common everywhere
Rook (Corvus frugilegus). Uncommon in Istanbul
Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix). Common everywhere
Common Raven (Corvus corax). 1 at Anadolu Kavaği
Great Tit (Parus major). Common everywhere
Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris). 1 at Anadolu Kavaği
Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla). 1 at Anadolu Kavaği
European Robin (Erithacus rubecula). Common at Anadolu Kavaği
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros). 1 at Gülhane Park
Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula). Common at Anadolu Kavaği
Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Common everywhere
Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis). Topkai Palace and Gülhane Park
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). Uncommon in Istanbul
Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs). Common everywhere
European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis). Uncommon in Istanbul
European Serin (Carduelis serinus). 2 at Topkapi Palace
European Siskin (Spinus spinus). 2 at Anadolu Kavaği
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). Common everywhere