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Black Sea and Beyond - A wildlife tour of the Pontic Alps

by Mike Norman

In late May I went on a wildlife trip to the north-eastern corner of Turkey, visiting the Black Sea Coast and the areas just inland towards the border with Georgia. This is an area which is definitely not on the regular tourist trail, but can boast some truly magnificent scenery and a wide range of natural habitats which are home to some wonderful plants and animals.

We started off in Trabzon, which is a somewhat scruffy but bustling port town, and explored the valleys reaching down from the mountainous ridges that lie not far inland. Known as the Pontic Alps, they fringe the coast for hundreds of miles, mostly over 2000m and rising to nearly 4000m in places. This range catches much of the moisture coming off the Black Sea, giving the coastal valleys a verdant look, especially early in the summer. Most of the steep slopes are wooded, with spruce above, and oak, beech and hornbeam lower down.

Damp ground
Damp places abound with ferns and the two Rhododendron species, purple-flowered ponticum and yellow luteum. Both grow wild in the UK now and it was nice to see them in their appropriate setting, R. ponticum looking much less malevolent than over here.

Small meadows
Near the valley bottoms are small meadows and hazel groves that abound with flowers, some looking familiar, but others quite exotic. The latter include the orchid Steveniella satyroides, entirely purple-brown with a single leaf and strange hooded flowers that lend it its English name. A very widespread plant is the milkwort Polygala major, with bold upright plumes in bright pink that kept making people think they were orchids!

We also visited the high passes, where the snow was only just melting. As well as alpines like gentians and pansies, there were other plants that grew in the runoff from the snow patches, such as pink Primula auriculata, the tiny Cyclamen parviflora and sheets of Colchicum szovitsii.

Birds were often tricky to spot in the wooded valleys, but included Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrike, Scarlet Rosefinch and Crag Martin. Dippers were somewhat elusive, though spotted on a couple of occasions. Higher up, Black Redstarts were often seen. Along the coast were Yellow-legged Herring Gulls, Shags and the occasional Egret. Trabzon waterfont played host to more Shrikes, Spotted Flycatchers and Whitethroats.

Oddly named hotel
We moved on to stay at the oddly-named Genesis Hotel at about 1800m below the Ovit Dagi pass (2600m). This was a pleasant spot and the new cabin-style accommodation would have been ideal if not for the poor weather and the dodgy plumbing! The surrounding spruce woods thronged with the vocal but extremely retiring Green Warbler. I finally managed to see one on the last morning when on the point of giving up - not the most spectacular bird (yes, it is a bit green), but a sense of achievement nonetheless. Far more eyecatching were two local specialities, the Caspian Snowcock and the Caucasian Black Grouse. The former we saw just below the Ovit Dagi, picking them up by their curlew-like call. Whereas the Snowcock are large greyish birds, the Blackcock are similar to their UK cousins, though the tail plumes are distinctively different. In order to see them close-up, an 'early morning' trip to a lek was proposed, to which I agreed, before finding out that the start time was 2.30am, to allow for a 2-hour climb of 1000m! "Sadly", the weather forecast was bad enough to knock this scheme on the head, but we were able to get some distant views through a scope later in the morning.

Snowmelt species
The Ovit Dagi pass was very snowy and, as well as the plants previously mentioned, featured the small yellow bulb Gagea glacialis, in sheets in the snowmelt. Caltha polypetala, a relative of Marsh Marigold, added to the colour. Other distinctive mountain birds, such as Water Pipit, Alpine Accentor, Shore Lark and Snow Finch, were also seen. As mist closed in, we retreated down the valley, and, in a wet meadow below the hotel, I made a star find - the first record of the dark blue bulb Bellevallia paradoxa for the coastal province of Rize. Similar to Grape Hyacinth, this is common in snowmelt on high alpine slopes further inland, but it had been suggested that the plant might also grow in wet meadows at lower altitudes. My specimen was the first proof of this theory!

Our next move took us into different territory as we drove east along the coast before turning inland to the town of Artvin in the Coruh valley. As we drove, we spotted numerous 'kettles' of raptors spiralling in thermals to gain height as they moved along the coast. Not far inland, the terrain becomes noticeably drier with scrubby vegetation replacing the lush forests.

Amazing position
Artvin occupies an amazing position, with its lowest point at the bridge over the river, the rest of the town distributed along a series of hairpin bends before finally petering out some 2,500 feet higher up. The views from the town are most spectacular, including an old castle perched on a rocky pinnacle over the river. Not so attractive were the works for the series of huge dams that are being built across the Coruh, soon to flood many tens of miles both upstream and downstream from Artvin. This is particularly disappointing in view of the uniqueness of the flora in the valley, still only partly researched. It seems certain that many species will be completely wiped out. Our Turkish guide is an expert on the area and was due to carry out emergency survey work later in the year. In a few weeks he could hope to cover only a fraction of what might be lost.

Good range of plants
The Coruh valley is very rocky and features many cliff and scree-loving plants, one of the most attractive being the vivid pink Pelargonium endlicherianum, which seems to thrive on slopes of unstable boulders. Alyssum artvinense is a cushion-like plant well adapted to the drier climate. Where more permanent water seeps out of cracks, we found the spectacular Eastern Marsh Helleborine, over three feet tall with exotic orchid flowers tinged green and ginger.

Further up the valley, the climate becomes increasingly arid and the ground is covered by a low vegetation typical of the Asian steppes, with silvery leaves to protect against moisture loss. We searched without success for the very local endemic Iris taochia, whose flowers can range in colour from deep purple to apricot - only some leaves and a single spent flower were found. In compensation, the valley is an excellent place for birds, including Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Black Stork, Roller, Hoopoe, Black-eared Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush. A Black-veined White butterfly posed co-operatively for several photographers.

On the slopes above Artvin, we hoped to explore a hay meadow visited on previous trips and found so be heaving with orchids. We were sad to find it grazed absolutely flat, but nearby our guides spotted another promising field and negotiated with the owners to allow us a look.

The morning was saved as we found many of the expected species - Orchis palustris, Orchis picta, Butterfly Orchids and so many Serapias they were almost ground cover. This was also a great spot for butterflies, with Glanville and Marsh Fritillaries and a host of blues. Our lunch spot higher up had great views of surrounding snowy mountains and sightings of the Turkish race of Redstart and the diminutive Kruper's Nuthatch. Later we visited the nearby Hatila National Park, a rugged area of cliffs and gorges where we found the graceful Campanula pontica and the Red and Kurdish Helleborines. Alpine Swifts also put on a tremendous flying show.

Another World
Leaving Artvin, we entered yet another world as we drove east to Ardahan. Early on, a special stop was made to view Campanula coruhensis, another endemic species that was discovered and named by our Turkish guide. A compact plant with large pinkish bell-flowers, its favoured haunt is on vertical rock faces directly overhanging the river, which made it a challenge to photograph!

The dry rugged terrain is soon replaced by rolling hills covered by mile after mile of green grass - the true steppe-lands of Asia.

The higher slopes are like natural rock gardens covered by a stunning array of plants - Pulsatilla albana with drooping purple bells, pale blue Veronica gentianoides, velvety Iris furtcata and white Anemone narcissiflora to name but a few.

The town itself sits in a bowl in the hills and is surrounded by wetlands where swathes of marsh orchids and the amazing electric blue Bellevallia forniculata can be found.

One nearby marsh is a wetland reserve where we found cranes with young, Marsh Harrier, Red-necked Grebe, Moustached Warbler and Citrine Wagtail.

On the Georgian Border
We also visited Aktas Lake, right on the Georgian border, which held White and Dalmatian Pelican, Ruddy Shelduck and Montagues Harrier. Overhead, Long-legged Buzzards were often to be seen as well as Black Kite and the occasional Booted Eagle. The town is a bizarre mix of old and new with horses pulling carts along streets and families living in turf-roofed huts, but also satellite TV dishes and an interface cafe.

On the roads we encountered nomadic families herding their flocks of sheep for hundreds of miles to reach summer pastures, all their possessions carried on the backs of a few donkeys.

Intrusive Oil Pipeline
Also bringing change to the area is the pipeline to bring oil from Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea to the Turkish Mediterranean Coast. It is feared that the building and operation of the pipeline will lead to further irreparable environmental damage.

So sensitive is the issue that we were warned not to point cameras or binoculars in that direction.

Long Journey Home
After four days in Ardahan, it was time to make the long journey back home, taking with us vivid memories of the amazing wildlife and spectular scenery that we had seen over the preceeding two weeks.

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