Azerbaijan International

Summer 2001 (9.2)
Pages 32-34

Above: Azerbaijan's abandoned oil platforms provide nesting areas for various kinds of waterbirds.

The Earth is home to more than 100 billion birds. While this may seem like a large number, there has actually been a general decline in the world's bird population. As the human population has increased, birds have lost some of their natural habitats and been displaced from their native territories. They have been forced to adapt to man-made environments and find new nesting places.

Waterbirds in particular play a significant role in the world's ecosystems, including the Caspian and its islands and shores. These birds impact various levels of the marine environment's food chain. Flamingos feed upon plankton and small organisms at the bottom of shallow waters. Ducks, geese, swans, waders and coots feed upon larger algae and water plants. Many waterbirds such as cormorants, pelicans, grebes, herons, gulls, terns and some ducks feed upon fishes. In this way, the waterbirds help maintain the balance of nature by keeping the other organisms from multiplying to the point of being out of control.

Ornithologists like Elchin Sultanov have studied the Azerbaijan oil industry's effects on birds - both positive and negative - and have noticed some surprising ways that birds have adapted over the years. Old, unused oil platforms have come to serve an unforeseen purpose - namely as a safe nesting place for thousands of migrating birds. Sultanov, who has a Ph.D. in Ornithology, is currently head of the Ornithological Laboratory of the Academy of Sciences' Zoology Institute. He also serves as head of Azerbaijan's Center for the Protection of Birds.

Left: Ornithologist Elchin Sultanov points out a nest.
Oil has been extracted from the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea for more than 50 years. At the same time, this area - the western coast of the Caspian - is one of the world's most important passages for migrating birds. Each year, birds fly from Northern Eurasia (northern Russia, western Siberia, Volga-Urals, Kazakhstan, part of Fennoscandia) on their way to northern Iran, the Persian Gulf region, Arabia, Egypt and eastern Africa to stay for the winter. According to our calculations, about 20 million waterbirds migrate along the Western coast of the Caspian Sea each year.

Some of the birds that normally make their habitat in Kazakhstan fly directly across the Caspian. A significant number of these birds (more than 1.3 million) winter along the Caspian coast of Azerbaijan and the inner nature reserve. About a half million of them winter along Lake Sarisu (Yellow Water), and an estimated 100,000 winter at Lake Aghgol (White Lake). Along the coast alone there are at least 700,000 birds that winter each year, out of which an estimated 500,000 remain at the Gizilaghaj reserve in southeast Azerbaijan.

Naturally, these birds are impacted by the development of oil in the Caspian. In 1996 and 1997, a team of Azerbaijani ornithologists set out to research the effects of the oil industry on the environment. This study, which never would have been attempted during Soviet times, was sponsored by the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC).

A New Home
We knew that large groups of birds nested on some of the small islands offshore Baku and in the Absheron archipelago. But it came as a big surprise to us to discover large nestings of cormorants, gulls and terns on the old oil platforms out in the sea. These abandoned platforms were built during Soviet times and are about 20 x 30 m. Many of the platforms are located 50-60 km northeast of Baku and about 100 km to the south. After oil was extracted from the sea and it was no longer possible to get any more, these platforms were abandoned. They are a problem for ship captains who have to navigate around them and wish that they would be disassembled.

Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) usually nest in trees or high bushes, but the region onshore that is close to the oil wells is semi-desert without trees. So the birds have begun making nests on the abandoned oil platforms by bringing twigs from the land. Nesting so close to the sea is very convenient for cormorants, since they feed on small fish and can catch them without flying very far from their nests

While 50-60 years ago there were not that many cormorants nesting on Azerbaijan's coast, today the cormorant is one of the most common birds. It used to be that they only stayed on the oil platforms for the winter or while they were passing through. But now they seem to be nesting permanently there. This leaves us with a dilemma: if we start to disassemble the old oil platforms, we'll inevitably be displacing thousands of birds, especially the cormorants.

Another species that is commonly found in the area is the Herring gull or Yellow-legged gull (Larus argentatus cachinans). Unlike cormorants, these birds nest only on the ground or at least on a smooth surface, for example, the roofs of abandoned constructions. But like cormorants, they also nest on abandoned oil platforms, right on the old decks.

Above: Looking for seagull nests amongst a decrepit oil platform in the Caspian. These waterbirds often have to compete with local residents who scavenge the wood for use in building shelters.

Seagulls in particular like to nest on the abandoned wooden decks found at the Bahar oilfield, located 50 km south of Baku. Unlike cormorants, seagulls can't nest on metal platforms. They have had to compete with local residents, as people from coastal villages tend to scavenge wood from the platforms for their houses or yards - especially the refugees who have had to scrounge around to find any kind of material that they can use for building shelters, thus leaving the seagulls without a place to nest.

Rare Species
Other birds such as the Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) prefer to nest on islands rather than on oil platforms. On Garasu (Black Water) island, we've detected nestings of a very rare species called the Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis). On the Babur-Gutan island system, we've identified the only nesting place of the Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephala) in Azerbaijan; there are an estimated 250 mating pairs located there.

Also on these islands are nestings of the beautiful Ruddy Shell Duck (Tadorna ferruginea), which has European Threatened Status. This designation, which is assigned by BirdLife International, a worldwide bird conservation organization, refers to a species that may be common in other parts of the world, but is rare or threatened in Europe.

Above: Some of the birds that use Azerbaijan as a migratory route make their nests on the coastal marshland waters and in the trestles of abandoned oil platforms.

On Gil (Clay) island of the Baku archipelago, approximately 60 km southwest of Baku, we have also detected nestings by small waders like the Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus); the Colored Pratincol (Glareola pratincola), a bird that catches insects in the air and resembles a big swallow (it also has European Threatened Status); the Little Tern (Sterna albifrons), which has European Threatened Status, and several other species.

With more research, it is possible that we will find even more rare birds making their homes in Azerbaijan. But unfortunately, we are not currently carrying out any systematic ornithological monitoring in connection with oil development. Hopefully in the future, we will have the chance to learn more about how birds co-exist with oil development and how we can help protect them and their natural habitats.

Azerbaijan International (9.2) Summer 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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