Located on the flight path of millions of migrating birds, Azerbaijan is a birdwatcher’s paradise. And in order to protect its feathered population, the Azerbaijan Ornithological Society raises awareness among locals of bird behaviour, their habitats and importance to the ecosystem. Here, the society’s director, Elchin Sultanov, talks about conservation and his own avian encounters, and shares a little-known fact about the region’s formidable imperial eagle
Why is the Caucasus region such an amazing place to see birds?
Azerbaijan has a unique geographical location. One of the biggest bird flyways, or flight paths, in the world is located here. In the winter, birds from all over western Siberia, the Urals, Russia’s Volga basin, as well as central and eastern Kazakhstan, fly into and through Azerbaijan. They fly onwards to Asia and the Middle East, including India and northeast Africa. Where the Greater Caucasus meets the Caspian Sea, we have a very narrow corridor for birds and this causes one of the biggest ‘bird bottlenecks’, as it were, in the world. It is because of this, you have such an abundance of species, from water birds to raptors (birds of prey, such as the imperial eagle) and a plethora of passerines (perching birds).
What kind of threats are the birds under?
As everywhere, raptors pique special interest: not only are birds of prey used for hunting, but they often make beautiful attractions, alive in zoos or stuffed as collector’s items; even their eggs are not safe from eager collectors who would have them on display. This is the reason we try to protect the sites where raptor birds make their nests, and keep them private.
Conversely, big raptors including eagles hunt domestic birds such as chickens or turkeys, which, of course, means that people are not happy when large eagles have their nests near villages. They will often try to destroy the eagle’s nest, or cut down the tree that holds it. Further threats come from hunters – big birds such as eagles make great quarry. Finally, there is the problem of the encroachment of urban development on natural habitats, as overhead power lines, electricity pylons (attractive nesting locales that these are) and wind farms create a whole new set of hazards for birds.
The Azerbaijan Ornithological Society hosts public awareness programmes. What do they involve?
We focus on threatened species, both locally and globally, and seek to raise awareness and provide information on how people can get involved in helping with conservation activities. As such, we organise meetings and presentations, and host discussions in schools and universities. In rural areas, we promote ecological education among students and bird lovers alike. Right now, our primary commitment is to species such as the imperial eagle, white-headed duck and lesser white-fronted goose, as well as the general conservation of Azerbaijani birds and their habitats.
Is eco-tourism the best way to go about birdwatching?
Yes, over the past few years, eco-tourism has become extremely popular in Azerbaijan, as there are beautiful, natural sites here. Visiting birdwatchers are especially interested in the variety we have – from wintering water bird species, such as the Dalmatian pelican, to giant concentrations of the little bustard – as well as the spectacular, diverse ecologies found in places such as Zangezur National Park. Here, for example, there are dry landscapes that are not encountered elsewhere in Azerbaijan.
What has been your most special avian moment in your career?
There are many, but one that stands out is when we discovered a huge nesting site of cormorants on a disused oil platform in the Caspian Sea!
And have you had special moments of connection with the birds themselves?
Again, there are so many. But, as one example, there are times when imperial eagle chicks try to leave the nest before they are old enough. They are so fragile then and can die if they are not returned to the nest. It is so rewarding to care for them and get them back to safety when possible.
Tell us something we don’t know about the imperial eagle.
They love eating lizards, and snakes!
Photography courtesy of Getty Images and the Azerbaijan Ornithological Society
To get involved with the Azerbaijan Ornithological Society, visit http://www.aos.az/az/
Want to find out more? Read about James Parry’s journey to Azerbaijan to see its migrating birds here