Birds in love with the water

It's not just you and I that can't do without it; the beautiful feathered owners of Turkey's wetlands love it, too, and derive life from it: the water birds…

I  became a bird watcher in 2000 at Lake Büyükçekmece, an 'Important Nature Area'. My experienced bird watcher friends had told me I would be able to see the birds in the wetlands here much more easily, and without disturbing them. And that's exactly what happened; I quickly learned to recognize a large number of bird species in the two wetlands where I was a frequent visitor. As time passed I visited several wetlands in Turkey at a time when the number of water birds inhabiting them was still quite high. Today unfortunately, with the effect of global warming, the areas where birds take refuge are disappearing one by one, and all the wildlife that inhabits the area around the water, which is its source of life, is disappearing as well.

HARBINGERS OF BIO-DIVERSITY
According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which Turkey signed in 1994, “wetlands are areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.” Wetlands are particularly rich in biological diversity. Besides bacteria, algae, insects, fish, amphibians, mammals and aquatic plants, a large number of other living species are also found in wetlands, some of them so small as to be invisible to the naked eye. But the most conspicuous indicators of biological diversity are the birds in evidence around the water's edge. Observing those birds, you can draw conclusions about the other forms of life that inhabit that wetland. You can infer, for example, that a wetland regularly frequented by flamingos is brackish and rich in artemia, a species of invertebrate.

TURKEY'S WETLANDS
Giving life not only to the humans who reside in the vicinity but also to the other creatures that take refuge there, wetlands at the same time constitute underground water reserves as well as performing certain functions such as flood prevention, preserving the regional climate, protection against storms, and purification of toxic wastes. Almost all of them are also places where birds stop over and/or winter and breed. Turkey's location on the migration route of birds that migrate from Northern Europe to Africa further enhances the importance of its wetlands and water birds. Twelve areas have been declared 'Ramsar Areas' in Turkey under the Ramsar Convention: Sultansazlığı,Lake Manyas, Lake Uluabat, Lake Burdur, the Gediz Delta, the Göksu Delta, the Kızılırmak Delta, Lake Seyfe, Akyatan Weir, the Yumurtalı Lagoons, Kizören Swallow-Hole and Meke Maarı. Birds such as the White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala), the Marbled Duck (Marmaronetta angustirostis), the Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus) and the Pygmy Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Pygmeus), all of which are endangered worldwide, reproduce in these areas in the summer months. Not only are the Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus) and Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis), also under threat, observed in small numbers in Turkey's wetlands in winter, some eighty percent of the world population of the Ruddy Duck wintered at Lake Burdur in the first half of the 1990's. Birds such as the Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca), Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni) and Great Bustard (Otis tarda), also threatened with extinction, can be observed as well in the wetlands and natural habitats that surround them.

CHANGING HABITATS
The Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus), an endangered species which once reproduced at Lake Seyfe and the Ereğli Marsh, is now known to breed only at Lake Aktaş in the northeastern province of Ardahan. This large and friendly bird, which breeds in lakes and lagoons rich in fish, used to love living in the wetlands of Central Anatolia. The famed 'pink crane' of Turkish folk songs, the Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) reproduces today only in the salt flats of the Gediz Delta and on the Tuz Gölü (Salt Lake) near Konya. Due to increasing aridity however the number of individuals breeding on the Salt Lake today is continuing to diminish.

Unlike its closest neighbor, the Black Stork (Ciconia nigra) reproduces in forests and quiet rocky valleys remote from human settlement. But like the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia), it too feeds on the frogs, reptiles and wide variety of insects found along the shores of lakes and rivers. In spring and fall especially, the two species can be observed migrating together in large flocks. The Little Stint (Calidris minuta) is a small shore bird that does not breed in Turkey but takes refuge during the winter months and the migration season on sandy beaches and in mud flats, flood plains and along the shores of lakes, seas and rivers, where it finds the shallow waters and mud it requires.

WATER BIRD HOMES
An ostentatiously beautiful species of lesser heron, the Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides), inhabits swamps and muddy riverbanks, where it builds nests in trees together with other species of heron in large flocks.

With a long curving beak that it swishes back and forth in the water when feeding, the Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) is a bird that inhabits brackish salt lakes, lagoons and swamps. The Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), Turkey's largest and most darkly colored sea bird, can be observed in all types of wetlands. Particularly in winter it is frequently observed on the coasts of the large cities. Receding wetlands and the recent proliferation in summer homes now threaten the habitats of this bird, which prefers either rocky coasts or half-submerged trees for breeding.

The Great White Egret (Egretta alba) is perhaps the water bird most threatened by the drying up of the Central Anatolia plateau. Observing this comely, white bird, close to a meter in height, which nests in large swamps has become a rare delight for bird watchers in Turkey's wetlands.

OUR SHRINKING WETLANDS
One by one these unique and supremely important natural habitats are now becoming known instead as 'dry areas'. Seventy-five percent of them are threatened by agricultural activity (irrigation and drainage), 35% by industry and urban sprawl and resultant wastes, 75% by illegal hunting, 40% by overfishing, and 30% by overgrazing and burning. Regarded as the areas richest in bio-diversity after the tropical rain forests, most of the wetlands in the developed countries have been dried up and destroyed. Although many of hers have also been lost, Turkey still has some extremely valuable wetlands.

A number of non-government organizations are engaged in projects to save and protect the country's birds. Bird watchers are creating a database by going to a website, www.kusbank.org, to record the individual birds they observe in these wetlands, each of which is an 'Important Nature Area'. This provides an opportunity for monitoring on a regular basis the number and species of water birds that frequent these areas. Through the water bird census which is taken every winter, changes in these areas, which are so important for birds, and in the populations of the endangered species can be closely monitored. The priorities for protection both of areas and of species are also re-assessed yearly.

As a result of these efforts, it is becoming clear that our wetlands, which are such a crucial source of life, can indeed continue to survive through well-planned projects that are integrated with the biological diversity that surrounds them.