The Beauty That Is Gediz

Host to a large number of endangered bird species, the Gediz Delta is one of the most important wetlands not just in Turkey but in the entire Mediterranean region.

W hat comes to your mind at the mention of the word ‘tuzla’ (salt pan)? According to the dictionary definition, a salt pan is a coastal area where salt is extracted by channelling sea or lake water into basins known as ‘pans’ and then leaving it to evaporate. The Çamaltı Tuzlası at Izmir is exactly one such place. Before I took up bird watching, it was for me simply a place where salt was extracted. But right next to the Tuzla sign on the Izmir-Menemen highway there’s another sign: ‘Izmir Bird Sanctuary, 18 km’. What sort of coincidence was this? How did salt and birds happen to come together?
The Gediz River constitutes Turkey’s largest salt pan, an accumulation of alluvia carried down to the coast from the Anatolian heartland over millennia. Formed by the confluence of rivers originating in Western Anatolia’s highest mountain, the Murat, and Mt. Şaphane, the Gediz emptied into the Aegean east of the Çilazmak Dalyanı (fishing weir) until the end of the 19th century, when deltas formed from alluvia carried by the Gediz and other rivers in the region gradually filled up the coastline. As these vast deltas swallowed up not only harbors but great cities as well, the Bay of Izmir was soon faced with a similar threat. The course of the Gediz was therefore altered, ensuring that it now empties into the sea from the north at Foça. As a result, the vastly expanded Gediz Delta extends today from Çiğli marsh in the south all the way to Foça in the north. One of Turkey’s largest deltas, the Gediz is also the location of several fishing weirs: Kırdeniz, Homa, Çilazmak and Ragıppaşa. Due to its geographical features and man-made salt pans, it offers rich habitats, especially for birds.

Because they harbor several different ecosystems at once, deltas constitute suitable environments in which a variety of creatures can live and breed. And the vast salt-water marshes southeast of the Çamaltı salt pan are of great importance for certain bird species. The Gediz Delta with, in addition to salt pans, its floodplains, gardens, wooded areas and agricultural lands is a habitat unique in the entire Mediterranean. A total of 267 of the 465 bird species identified in Turkey have been observed here up to now. Among them are seabirds, waterbirds, shorebirds, birds of prey, warblers, steppe birds and even woodland birds. During the migration season especially, the site is a resting and feeding area for a significant number of  waterbirds as well as being a major wintering and breeding ground for numerous species. This region, which welcomes tens of thousands of waterbirds every year, also meets all the qualifications for being an ‘Important Bird Area’ (IBA) for 28 species of birds that face extinction worldwide. The Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus), the Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), the Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni), the Spur-winged Plover (Vanellus spinosus), the Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis), the Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) and the Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) are just a few of them.

The Dalmatian Pelican, which is facing extinction around the world, is one of the most important species that breeds in this area. You can observe 300-700 of these birds in the delta in winter, in other words, more than five percent of their total numbers worldwide. Watching the flight of these birds, which resemble ‘cargo planes’ with their wingspan of over three meters, is a delight. The delta is also a major breeding ground for the Lesser Kestrel, the Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalusi), the Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia) and the Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), all of which are endangered worldwide.
As the bird best suited for withstanding salt-water environments, flamingos are found in large numbers in the Gediz Delta. These birds, which prefer salt pans for both feeding and breeding, have come to symbolize the delta. The 2500-4000 pairs of flamingos that breed here every year throughout the winter season are increasing in number and have now reached some twenty thousand. The staple food of these elegant creatures is a tiny species of shrimp called Artemia salina that lives in the delta’s salt waters. The flamingos, which filter the salt water through their strainer-like bills and then swallow the shellfish, are similar to whales in this respect. In fact, flamingos also owe their lovely pink hue to these miniature creatures. As baby flamingos, which are grey in color, feed on artemia, their feathers are gradually transformed into a spectacular shade of pink thanks to the high level of carotene in this nutriment.

Thousands of pairs of waterbirds brood every year on the delta’s protected mud shoals. In Turkey, the Sandwich Tern, for example, breeds exclusively in the Gediz Delta. The region is one of five areas on the Mediterranean coast where this species regularly breeds. The delta also heads the list of wintering places for the Black Stork (Ciconia nigra) in Turkey. This bird, which, unlike its close relative the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia), shuns contact with humans, makes its nest in areas remote from human settlement. As for the Lesser Kestrel, it is a species of migratory falcon also threatened with extinction worldwide. Meanwhile the Spur-winged Plover, with white cheeks and neck, and a black crest, throat and belly, owes its name to the tiny spur it sports under each wing. This bird, which makes its nest on lagoons and lakes and in brackish salt-water marshes is one of the Gediz’s best-known residents.
As for the protected status of this area, which is so important for birds and many other creatures, an 8000-hectare area including salt pans and lagoons in the Gediz Delta was declared a Wildlife Preserve in 1980; and the same area was granted protected status in 1981. The area that includes the preserve and a portion of the South Gediz Delta has also been identified as a RAMSAR site (the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands governs the protection of habitats of waterbirds in particular). Despite various forms of protected status such as the Bern Agreement, human pressure on the delta is unfortunately mounting. And construction, starting from Mavişehir and the Çiğli marsh and extending all the way to Sasalı, poses a threat to the area as well. Far more care needs to be exercised on behalf of the true ‘home-owners’ of the Gediz Delta, which is not only a wintering place and stopover for migratory birds where thousands of pairs of bird breed, but also a refuge for numerous birds species that are threatened with extinction.