Azerbaijan International

Summer 2001 (9.2)
Pages 26-31

Bird Watching in Azerbaijan
Where to Go ­ What You'll See

by Napier Shelton

Azerbaijan is a marvelous place for bird watching. Tucked into this relatively small country the size of Austria (or the state of Maine) are environments ranging from alpine to subtropical, all of which are home for a wide range of life, including birds. Up until now, however, there has never been descriptive material available in English about the bird populations and bird migrations. That's a big setback for birders-people who are passionate about observing wild birds in their natural habitats.

Napier Shelton, a bird enthusiast and former writer and editor with the U.S. National Park Service, is about to change all that with a new book scheduled to come out this summer, "Where to Watch Birds in Azerbaijan." Here he shares some of the best locations to pull out your binoculars and set up your telescopes in this bird-rich country.

When I first arrived in Azerbaijan in the summer of 1999, I was eager to discover what avian treasures might be found in this country. I wasn't disappointed.

At first I just consulted maps and traveled around to various places, especially lake regions where I thought various birds would naturally gather. Later I met Elchin Sultanov, Director of the Institute of Zoology's Ornithology Laboratory, who pointed out the best wetlands and coastal areas for bird watching.

Some 360 species of birds have been recorded in Azerbaijan. These range from the large and spectacular - such as flamingos and eagles - to many kinds of waterfowl, colorful bee-eaters and rollers, the amusing, improbable Hoopoe, and numerous small brown warblers that even strain the identification skills of experts. The avian show keeps changing throughout the year.

Above: Some of the best bird watching areas in Azerbaijan are in the marshlands off the Caspian where waterbirds including pink flamingos congregate by the thousands.


Azerbaijan's relatively mild winters attract many birds from farther north in Russia to winter. Millions of birds pass over or stop in Azerbaijan, especially during winter. It may be that global warming is influencing the increase in the number of species of birds that habitually winter in Azerbaijan.

Waterbirds by the thousands - both large and small - concentrate in Azerbaijan's many wetlands and are located along the coast and inland. Wetland birds include swans, geese, ducks, flamingos and shorebirds (known as "waders" to the British) like Black-tailed Godwits, curlews and snipe. Along the coast, Common and Great Black-headed Gulls can be seen.

Hen Harriers and a few Peregrine Falcons and Saker Falcons hunt over land; the latter two, unfortunately, are illegally captured for lucrative sale to Arab falconers.

Some species of small birds that nest farther north also come to Azerbaijan for the winter. Large flocks of Meadow Pipits and Bramblings, for instance, roam the open areas, feeding on seeds.
In the mountains, most birds of the alpine zone, like Guldenstadt's Redstart and the Great Rosefinch, are forced lower in winter by snow; some even migrate down into the river valleys.

Above and below: Some of Azerbaijan's waterbirds have found ways to creatively construct build nests directly on the water.


Spring reduces the great wetland show but brings in a different storm of migrants and nesters. Most of the waterfowl and shorebirds depart for northerly climes, beginning in late February. Early arrivals from the south include Hoopoes, Barn Swallows and wheatears, all easily seen along roadsides. Overhead, you may hear the hoarse croaking of Common Cranes or glimpse a Steppe Eagle, both on their way to Russia or Kazakhstan.

Spring migration peaks in April and May. All sorts of small birds, such as shrikes, warblers and flycatchers, stay to nest or pass on through. Look for yellow and blue bee-eaters and electric blue rollers on telephone wires. Along the coast, cormorants, terns and shorebirds stream by. All this passing and arrival of new life is what makes spring the most exciting time of the year for most bird watchers.

This is the time most birds reproduce. In the marshes, herons, Pigmy Cormorants and the ducks that have remained behind are quite conspicuous, while Purple Swamphens, Moorhens and Water Rails skulk in the reeds. The forest birds, such as tits and woodpeckers, in the mountain forests and remnant lowland patches, break away from the winter flocks to set up paired housekeeping. Alpine birds move upslope to the meadows below snowline. Larks and wheatears sing above their open country territories. Some of the days may be too hot for us human beings, but there are many species to see both in the desert-like plains and in the mountains. Try the early morning for coolness and for the most activity, since most birds feed at this time.

Bird migrations in fall are not as urgent and concentrated as they are in spring. There is no reproductive command pushing them, just the need to find a food supply for winter. Certain shorebirds start to arrive by late summer, followed by small landbirds in September. Migration begins to be quite obvious in October with a variety of land and waterbirds and ends with the great influx of waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans) between October and December. Throughout the fall, raptors such as eagles and hawks pass through, especially along the coast.

Waterbirds, too, have preferred flyways. The majority of them follow the coast, some cutting across the Absheron Peninsula, some going around it. While many birds fly further south along the coast beyond Azerbaijan to Iran, others turn westward and head into the Kur River lowlands toward interior wetlands or on to the Black Sea.

What you'll need
So what do you need to get yourself into the countryside to see some of the action? You'll need a pair of binoculars. For serious waterbird watching, it's best to take a telescope and a good field guide to birds. I recommend the "Collins Bird Guide" by Svensson and Grant, called "Birds of Europe" in the North American edition. "Birds of Europe, with North Africa and the Middle East" by Lars Jonsson is also good but does not cover Azerbaijan in its distribution maps. Both describe nearly all the birds that occur in Azerbaijan. "Catalog of Birds of Azerbaijan" by D. G. Tuayev (in Russian and Azeri) gives more details on habits and distribution, as does "A Field Guide to Birds of Russia and Adjacent Territories" by V.E. Flint and others.

Above: Azerbaijan is on the migratory path for hundreds of species of birds that end up wintering along the Caspian coast.

As for transportation, you'll need a four-wheel-drive to negotiate the rough, and sometimes muddy roads to many of the best bird watching locales. If you don't speak Azeri or Russian, take along someone who does as a driver or a companion. Rubber boots are needed for most of the wetland areas. Mark Elliott's "Azerbaijan with Georgia" is indispensable for information on accommodations, restaurants, local history, and, in many places, road conditions.

For maps I relied upon "An International Travel Map of Armenia and Azerbaijan," published by International Travel Maps, 345 West Broadway, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V54 1P8 (It should also be available in many map stores in North America and Europe). I also found the map "Azerbaijan Republic", published by the Government Geodetic Committee, Nobel Prospekti 96, Baku, and sold, among other places, at the Academic Book Store at 51 Istiglaliyyat Street across from the Presideum of the Academy of Sciences. The Geodetic map is scaled larger with more details and thus more accuracy. It also shows topographic contours and forested areas. However, it is not as simple as the first map for negotiating main highways.

To gain entry into Azerbaijan's nature reserves (four of which are described here), you need a letter of permission from the office of the State Ecological Committee (Tel: 41-42-05) . Designate which reserves you'd like to visit and which dates. If you are arriving in the country and can only stay for a short time, try to get someone here to arrange for the letter of permission beforehand.

However, if you don't have permission, areas next to the reserves often contain many of the same birds. Many of the wetlands are hunted, but this poses no danger to bird watchers.

Where to Go
Below are 15 of my favorite bird watching places. I've organized them according to their distance from Baku and rated them by bird diversity and abundance, as well as environmental attractiveness. Four circles is the highest ranking.

1. Lake Ganli (Red Lake)
(1/2 to 1 day)

This freshwater lake is the best bird watching area near Baku. It nestles in the valley west of Wolfgate, bounded on the west and south by the highway that bypasses Baku. In fact, this lake was created to serve as a reservoir for water flowing down into the valley when the highway was built to the Caspian shore. The lake immediately to the south of the road is salty and oily and, thus, attracts no birds. Lake Ganli is full of birds, especially in winter. Up the valley from it, extensive marshes hide many other species of birds.

What you can see, of course, depends upon the season. Early summer is the least interesting, with a few ducks and herons hanging around and warblers and other small birds creeping about in the reeds. If you arrive just when the sun is coming up, you may see chicken-like Purple Swamphens catching the sun's warmth at the edge of the marsh below Wolfgate. In late summer, migrating shorebirds begin arriving, to feed on invertebrates found in the mudflats. During the main fall migration, you can see a great variety of waterbirds: ducks, shorebirds, herons, gulls, terns and maybe a flamingo or two. As winter comes on, many of these disappear, but the duck and coot populations build up to hundreds. Often Shovelers, Mallards, rare White-headed Ducks and others can be easily spotted from the highway on the south side. Other days, you need to pull on your rubber boots and trek the muddy west shore. Almost always, you'll see Marsh Harriers coursing over the reeds, looking for prey.

The western shore is often strewn with windblown trash, which, of course, is bothersome, but I find that upon spotting some birds, it quickly disappears from mind.




2. Absheron Peninsula
(1 day)

This area at the southern tip of the Absheron Peninsula has marshy ponds, beaches and open coastal water. Many migrating birds pass by; quite a few of them stop. In fall you can sometimes see hundreds of Great Cormorants heading south.

The ponds along the shore south of Zira have considerable variety. During most seasons, you'll find herons, ducks and shorebirds. Once in October I saw a Peregrine Falcon hunting here and a Eurasian Bittern. One August, I spotted a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater.

The tip end of the peninsula is a long sandy spit now managed as a conservation area. You need written permission from the State Ecological Committee to enter (as with nature reserves), but the effort is worthwhile, especially during spring and fall migrations.

From late fall through early spring, the causeway to Artyom Island, at the end of the highway, looks out over hundreds of ducks, coots and grebes that winter in these waters. One October I spotted a seal swimming here, its head just above water.

To reach these areas, take the road past the airport, go 5.7 km farther and turn right at the traffic light intersection. Follow that road to the end of the peninsula. Shortly before you reach the causeway to Artyom, a road leads south to Kira and the shore beyond.


Peregrine Falcon


3. Cape Gilazi Dili
(1 day)

I like this place for its sense of remoteness as well as its birds. Located 20 minutes or so north of Sumgayit, it offers wet fields, a shore that is both rocky and sandy, and a marsh-fringed lagoon that is often full of birds. In the wet fields north of the road that leads to Yeni Yashma, ducks and geese congregate in the cooler months, along with lapwings and other shorebirds. There's usually a Marsh Harrier or two cruising about, and once I saw a magnificent Imperial Eagle.

The next road farther north leads from the highway through Shurabad to the coast, where it becomes sandy but usually easily negotiable.

Shorebirds like Grey Plovers and Dunlins can be seen along the sea fringe. At the end of this track, you'll find a shack on stilts beside the lagoon. I had one of my best bird watching days ever in early October at Cape Gilazi Dili, with such finds as Dalmatian Pelican, Short-eared Owl, Common Cranes, and White Stork, along with five kinds of herons.

4. Shirvan Nature Reserve
(1 day)

I've given this location three circles because you're likely to find a wide variety of birds here along with gazelle herds. The landscape is also fascinating as it stretches over a vast flat region east to the Caspian shore. The entrance to the nature reserve is on the highway leading to Salyan, about 1.5 hours from Baku.

With the requisite permission, a staff member will guide you to the headquarters, which overlooks a marshy lake with many birds (when the lake has water).

Tufted Duck




Here I once saw an Imperial Eagle diving at a White-tailed Eagle. A Purple Swamphen or two is usually visible as it meanders from one reed patch to another. The Caspian coast, best reached via a road on the north side of the Bash Shirvan Canal, is especially interesting during migrations (permission is also needed here). At such times I've seen Mediterranean Gulls, a newcomer to the Caspian, and perhaps Azerbaijan's first recorded Richard's Pipit, which originates from Central Asia.

5. Kur River Delta
(1 day)

The Kur River has many good bird watching spots, but the best is the river's delta, near Neftchala. From Salyan, it's about one hour to the sturgeon hatchery at Birinji Mayak. Along the last few kilometers, you pass villages where Lesser Kestrels are nesting. Kestrels are a colonial, globally threatened species. The hatchery is located between a lagoon and a large group of sturgeon-rearing ponds, most of which are not used these days.

This area attracts ducks, swans, flamingos, coots, shorebirds and herons. The exposed mudflats attract sandpipers and other shorebirds, late summer through spring. From the east side of the sturgeon pond area, with a telescope, you can scan the shrubby flats that extend to the Caspian beaches. Hawks may be found hunting over the flats. Gulls, ducks, shorebirds and sometimes pelicans like to sun on the beaches. Many herons and Pigmy and Great Cormorants nest in the delta as well.

6. Lake Hajigabul
(1 day)

Located just south of Gazimammad, one of the great characteristics of this lake is that there are few reeds to block the view of the thousands of ducks that winter there. The ducks usually congregate off the north shore or out in the middle of the lake. With a telescope you can get a wonderful view of ten or more kinds of ducks - Shovelers, Mallards, Teal, White-headed Ducks, Common and Red-crested Pochards, Tufted Ducks and others. Late summer through spring, you should also see herons and a variety of shorebirds. On one January visit, I saw seven flamingos and a flock of 300 black and white avocets, an elegant shorebird. When they took off flying, they looked like a snowy cloud against the distant hills. The ponds along the highway on the west side of the lake make for good shorebird watching, too.

To reach the lake, about 1.5 hours from Baku, take the southerly bypass around Gazimammad. You'll see the lake spread out before you.

7. Lake Mahmudchala
(1 day)

This lake lies about 2.5 hours south of Baku, on the highway to Lankaran, between Shorsulu and Bilasuvar. It, too, is "user-friendly." Usually in the cooler months you can see large rafts of ducks right from the highway. Farther west, snipe, redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits feed in the wet pools beside the road.

In April I've seen Squacco Herons and a White-tailed Eagle.

Another convenient viewing route is the road that extends for several kilometers along the canal on the east side of the lake. Don't attempt to drive there in wet weather - it becomes extremely slippery - but it's accessible by foot anytime. Here you can watch birds in the reeds along the canal, such as Moorhens, Reed Buntings and Bearded Reedlings.

8. Pirgulu
(1-2 days)

I like this area both for its variety of birds and for its scenery. Going north from Shamakhi, the road climbs through villages and wheat fields to provide wonderful views of the Greater Caucasus. Along this road I've seen Booted Eagle, Black Vulture, Egyptian Vulture and other raptors perched on power poles or soaring on the rising air currents. Around the observatory at Pirgulu, extensive forests, including the Pirgulu Nature Reserve, offer treecreepers, nuthatches, Wood Pigeons, woodpeckers, Mistle Thrushes, tits, and in summer, warblers and flycatchers.

The pavement ends at Pirgulu and a somewhat rough, but manageable, road continues to Damirchi, fording a stream near the village. Four-wheel-drive is preferable here but is absolutely necessary north of Damirchi along the Pirsaatchay. Alpine birds like Twite, Ring Ouzel and Guldenstadt's Redstart descend into this valley in winter. It appears possible to pursue such birds in summer by walking up spur ridges to the main ridge from the village of Zarat Kheytari (ask locally for the easiest route). Cottages and a restaurant at Pirgulu are available if you want to make this a two-day trip.

9. Varvara
(2 days)

The lake and marshes here, south of Mingachevir, were created by a dam on the Kur River. Bird watching is good here, but you'd probably want to also visit other sites en route to justify the four-hour drive from Baku. You can drive or walk the dike along the east side of the lake. Ducks, including the rare Ferruginous Duck, grebes and coots can be seen in the open water between the extensive areas of marsh. Moorhens and Purple Swamphens call mysteriously from the reeds. A pond three km south of Mingachevir along the western approach to that city is usually full of waterbirds, including White-tailed Plovers, a mainly Central Asian bird. Short vegetation makes the birds quite visible.

To stay overnight, your best bet is probably the Kur or Kainat motel, located side by side on the right bank of the river at Mingachevir. The river here usually has lots of feeding black-headed gulls, Pigmy Cormorants and Little Grebes.

10. Long Forest
(2 days)

This is a comfortable place to seek out the birds of a forested stream valley near Guba (and go horsebacking, too, if you choose). Small fields and an orchard add more habitat and bird variety. I saw Grey Wagtails along the stream and will look for Dippers the next time I go there. In early September in the orchard I encountered an interesting mixed flock of woodpeckers, flycatchers, warblers and other birds. With more time you can venture from here higher into the mountains.

Long Forest is off the main road from Guba to Gusar - watch for the signs. The Black Spring Resort on the river near Gusar is another good place to stay, but the forest on the river flats is very patchy. I did see my first Black Woodpecker, an impressive, almost crow-sized bird, in the beech forest that covers the adjacent valley slope.

11. Gizilaghaj Bay
(2-3 days)

This is the premier bird watching area in all of Azerbaijan. In the winter, half a million waterbirds congregate here. In spring and fall, other millions of migrating birds-large and small-pass through. The abundance of water and the variety of vegetation attract many nesting birds. Relatively mild winters allow individual birds of some species to stay here, while the others would generally leave other parts of the country.

Access to all this richness is a bit of a challenge, however. If you get permission to enter the Gizilaghaj Nature Reserve, which encompasses the bay and much of the marshy surrounding land, the visit by road gives access to marsh, dry land and some waterbirds.

If you really want to see the waterbirds, you have to arrange to go in by boat. Areas outside the reserve are also good but can't all be reached in one day. Along the causeway between Port Ilich and Narimanabad, you can see lots of ducks, gulls, terns, herons and shorebirds, especially near the Narimanabad end. Continuing north along the shore you can see dozens of Pigmy Cormorants, sometimes pelicans, and other waterbirds on the outer beach and in the lagoons behind it.

Boatmen at Port Ilich and villages such as Tazakand, southwest of Gizilaghaj Bay, can take you into what they call the "little sea," a smaller version of the former. The Dashvand Hotel, just west of Masalli, is a good place to stay.

The area can also be approached from Neftchala, north of Gizilaghaj Bay. This is a long one-day trip from Baku. Various roads and tracks lead south to Saratovka, the last village on this peninsula. Here, with the Caspian on both sides of the road, you are in waterbird heaven, especially in winter. In January I saw around 12,000 ducks, close to 3,000 flamingos, great numbers of shorebirds including Black-tailed Godwits and curlews and a Short-eared Owl.

The end of the peninsula looked like a good place to camp and enjoy the changing avian scene (though mosquitoes might pose a problem during the warmer months). If you wish, boatmen at Saratovka can take you to the island south of here, since the road has been cut off by the rising Caspian sea.

12. Lankaran-Lerik
(2-3 days)

This road, running from the coastal lowland to a view of Talish Mountain peaks, follows a stream valley with the lushest, most beautiful forest I've ever seen in Azerbaijan. I've included this area here because of the superb scenery as well as the potential for watching birds. The forest has the usual complement of permanent residents such as tits, woodpeckers, and treecreepers, and summer birds such as Greenish Warblers and Semi-collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers. Along the rushing stream, hunt for dippers, which is an interesting little bird that can actually fly underwater as well as walk on the bottom. You'll find Grey Wagtails, too.

Past Lerik, on the higher peaks, look for vultures, Golden Eagle, Alpine Accentor, Alpine Swift, snowfinch, Alpine Chough and other birds of the high mountains. The mountaintops around Bilaband are some of the most accessible by foot. It's best not to venture too close to the Iranian border as border guards, naturally, may become suspicious of someone using binoculars.

The Dashvand Hotel near Masalli makes a good base for travel into the Talish Mountains, though the Lerik road is about 45 minutes south. The road to Yardimli leads through similar, though not as beautiful terrain, and is not quite as good for birds.

Last February I went to the Lankaran area, expecting balmier weather than Baku's. Instead, I ran into three days of snow, which accumulated to more than a foot of snow. We got stuck once and the visibility was sometimes poor, but we still saw a lot of birds. It was strange to spot two White Storks, which usually winter in Africa, flying there right through the snowfall.

13. Aghgol Nature Reserve
(3 days)

Out here on this large lake and marsh complex in the middle of Azerbaijan, east of Aghjabadi, there's a pleasing sense of remoteness and vastness. The rough, sometimes impassable, approach road crosses an undulating plain reminiscent of Mongolia.

Birding around the marsh and water edges in January, I saw Purple Swamphens, White-tailed Plovers, many ducks and shorebirds. In the reeds I found a little black-masked Penduline Tit foraging.

Early morning was the best time as birds were on the move: Greylag Geese heading out to feed in fields, flamingos moving from one part of the lake to another, a Dalmatian Pelican in all its huge whiteness. Nearby a Little Egret forever searched for crayfish in the wet ground.

My driver and I stayed in a spartan guard house with two of the nature reserve guards. If you get permission to come here, bring food, water, flashlight, sleeping bag or blankets, toilet paper (outhouse) and firewood for the wood stove. A guard would probably be able to take you on the lake in a boat, for best viewing of waterbirds, though a film of ice prevented this when I was there.

You should give something to the poorly-paid guards who help you. I'll skip directions from the reserve office in Aghjabadi as a staff member will have to guide you to the reserve. Four-wheel-drive is absolutely essential.

14. Zagatala Nature Reserve
(3-4 days)

This is a three-circle location if you can travel up to its higher elevations, two circles if you stay in the forests of the reserve or nearby areas. I was fortunate in being able to ride a horse with the director and other reserve staff to a high-elevation guardhouse, where we spent two nights.

While riding higher, we saw a Lammergeier and a group of tur (aurochs). This was September and we heard two flocks of cranes migrating high over the Greater Caucasus. At night roe deer and red deer rasped and bellowed in the forested valleys. Wolves tried to attack someone's cow, seemingly unsuccessfully.

The reserve is home to many hawks, eagles and vultures, alpine species like Caucasian Grouse and Caucasian Snowcock, forest birds like the large Black Woodpecker and a host of others. The forest itself is impressive, with many trunks of a meter or more circumference, as they have been protected in this reserve since 1929.

For accommodations, Mark Elliott suggests the Tala Pansionati in Zagatala. The cottages of the Ilisu Pansionati a few kilometers north of Gakh are only 30 minutes away, near other attractive mountain forests and the Ilisu Nature Reserve.

15. Babadagh
(4 days)

This mountain, which rises to 3,629 meters, is sacred to many Azerbaijanis, who make pilgrimages there. I include it here as an excellent place to see alpine birds and enjoy the craggy scenery. Late May through July is the best season. The birds, most of which are infrequently seen at lower elevations, include the Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Grouse, Great Rosefinch, Guldenstadt's Redstart, Red-fronted Serin, Snowfinch and many others. I confess that I haven't been there yet.
I plan to get help in organizing the horses, tents and other gear for a four-day trip: 1.5 days to reach there from Baku, 1.5 days to return, and two half-days to search for birds.

One route begins from the Guba side of the mountains, starting the trek from the village of Garkhun or higher, depending on what your four-wheel-drive can negotiate. Another starts from Istisu, on the south side, and requires a 6-hour horseback ride to the alpine zone.

Napier Shelton is a former writer and editor for the U.S. National Park Service. His wife, Elisabeth Shelton, served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy from Summer 1999 to Summer 2001.

To inquire about the new book, "Where to Watch Birds in Azerbaijan", write Napier Shelton at P.O. Box 305, Port Sanilac, Michigan 48469, USA or contact him via e-mail: In Baku, contact Elchin Sultanov, Director, Ornithology Laboratory at Baku's Institute of Zoology at:

Mr. Shelton wishes to thank Elnur Aliyev and Suleyman Suleymanov, who drove to these difficult remote places where he caught some unforgettable glimpses of nature.

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

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