Imagine a birding day that begins with a chill amid spectacular alpine scenery at almost 3,000 m and finishes in sultry coastal marshes, gradually descending through a myriad of wildlife-rich habitats as varied as verdant wooded valleys and arid lowland semi-desert.
It sounds too good to be true. Surely it's not possible to visit so many different ecological niches between sunrise and sunset? Well, in the Caucasian nation of Azerbaijan, it is.
Such an assorted schedule is a testament to the wealth of different habitats that this small country harbors. Small is the operative word: it's just 250 miles from Lankaran, close to the Iranian border in the south, to Quba, the gateway to the Azeri Greater Caucasus, which is about as far north as you can get without straying into Russia.
Best of both
Within the south-east Western Palearctic (WP), many are drawn to the appeal of neighboring Georgia for its high-mountain Caucasian specialties, or Turkey for terrific all-round birding, but few realize that Azerbaijan – situated on the western shore of the Caspian Sea and at the very eastern edge of the WP – offers the best of both these destinations set among an array of epic landscapes, despite its diminutive size. Add to that a handful of breeding species found almost nowhere else in the WP, such as
Rather like its peripheral position on the easternmost boundary of the WP, Azerbaijan remains a destination on the edge of many birders' radars, despite its obvious appeal. Despite there has been an upturn in visiting birders since 2010, as well as the establishment of a constant-effort watchpoint at the migration hot-spot of Besh Barmag, the country remains relatively unexplored. A perfect example of this is the range-restricted
While the scarcer inhabitants undeniably play their part in making Azerbaijan an attractive destination, it is the pristine ecosystems – and the great volume of life that they support – that confirm its appeal. Traditional practices mean that the agricultural lowlands of the coastal south are teeming with birds:
It's often said that the presence of apex predators symbolizes the health of an environment, and Azerbaijan is home to thriving populations of Brown Bear, Wolf, and even Caucasian Leopard. While the last remains extremely rare, recent camera-trap studies suggest that numbers are on the increase. Catching sight of any of these impressive mammals involves a large slice of luck, but the first two are possible in the right areas – we had great views of a lone Wolf (no pun intended) in the Greater Caucasus one May morning.
The entire nation comes alive in spring. The countryside is in bloom. The temperature is pleasant, returning breeders, adorned in their summer best, join the residents in their droves, with all species at their most conspicuous as they sing and display, driven by the insatiable urge to reproduce. What's more, huge numbers of northbound migrants move through on their way to higher latitudes, where they will soon fill the vast expanses of steppe, taiga, and tundra across Siberia.
This concoction of residents, summer migrants, and passage visitors ensure that spring (specifically mid-April until early June) produces the highest trip lists. In a two-week spring trip to Azerbaijan and its autonomous enclave of Nakhchivan, which is easily reached via a short internal flight from Baku, a trip list in excess of 250 species is entirely realistic.
May is probably the perfect time to visit for the greatest range of species as the last of the winterers still hang on in the early part of the month. The vast majority of summer visitors will be in, and migration will always be conspicuous. Our fortnight-long trip commenced on 3 May 2015, with the relatively early date chosen with the high-mountain specialties of the Greater Caucasus in mind – in theory, snow would still linger at lower altitudes at this time, meaning species such as
This rang true. On our first morning, which dawned clear with a light ground frost, we scored all three of our targets – redstart, rosefinch, and
The tranquillity was shattered as several snowcocks erupted raucously from a crag. A
These slopes must be the best place for Güldenstädt's Redstart in the WP. Each day we saw double figures. While searching for them and the other desirables, commoner species such as
Where there was vegetation,
The Greater Caucasus provides a massive draw for any visitor to Azerbaijan, but it is just one element that makes it such a memorable birding destination. From Khinaliq, at 2,500 m, it's just a couple of hours' drive to the arid shores of the Caspian Sea, emphasizing just how quickly and dramatically landscapes can change here.
Coastal wetlands are dotted along the entire Caspian shore, although arguably none is more impressive than Ghizil-Agaj State Reserve, where a mosaic of expansive lakes, shallow scrapes, reedbeds, and scrub draws in a huge variety and number of birds. We had unwittingly timed our visit perfectly for
Then, the highlight. Driving along a dusty track that afternoon, we were suddenly surrounded by
The Lesser Caucasus supports its list of desirable birds to pad out the trip list further. Via a stop for
The exclave of Nakhchivan, isolated from the 'mainland' following the Armenia-Azerbaijan war of the 1980s, can only be reached by air but is even more immaculate and uncharted. Flights operate several times daily from Baku. Birding in the region gives the chance to see scarcities such as
Birds are once again abundant: hordes of
A spring trip covering the areas mentioned above will already boast a weighty species list on returning to Baku. Yet, a visit into the country's hot and dry interior as a final port of call will bolster it further.
Amid stunning landscapes, birding in Azerbaijan was quickly among the best I've experienced anywhere in the world. Such diversity and abundance were uplifting alone, but with so many top WP ticks and fantastic photo opportunities, plus no considerable distances to travel, few destinations offer such a complete package for a rewarding birding holiday than this small Caucasian nation.