Azerbaijan's oil riches threaten priceless bird migration

Viktoriya, Zulfu Farajli,

Azerbaijan is known for its underground riches, the oil and gas that flow through pipelines, across countries and continents, to light and heat European cities.

But less is known about another priceless natural resource: birds.

Every year, in autumn, millions of birds making their way from the northern hemisphere to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere, making their way back again in the spring. This migration takes them through the high Caucasus Mountains, and along the shores of the Black and Caspian Seas.

In Azerbaijan, that migration is the most visible in Beshbarmag (Beş Barmaq in Azeri, which means Five Finger), not far from the Caspian Sea. Beshbarmag rises to 382 m above the sea level overlooking the Baku-Quba Highway. Since migratory birds avoid flying over natural barriers -- in the South Caucasus that means the mountains and the Black and Caspian Seas -- Beshbarmag has become a bottleneck for migrating birds.

That means millions of birds fly through the area – at times even rare species such as MacQueen’s bustard and common scoter, which are rarely spotted. The site is priceless for birdwatchers.

The bird migration through Beshbarmag includes 45 species that depend on the path for over one percent of their world and flyway population, a criterion suggested by Birdlife International to mark the importance of a migration bottleneck.

But for years no one knew how important Beshbarmag was for birds. While locals had long visited the site – Beshbarmag was a famous fortress during the days of the ancient Silk Road and it remains a sacred spot for some -- it was not until 2007 that two German ornithologists, Kai Gauger and Michael Heiss, realized how many birds were flying over the site. Their research now shows that 316 bird species – 79 percent of all birds in Azerbaijan – depend on Beshbarmag during their annual migrations.

They now fear the site is in danger, in part due to oil leaks, which are fatal to the birds, as well as plans to build a highway near the Beshbarmag site.

The Ministry of Ecology and National Resources of Azerbaijan told Chai Khana that it is taking all necessary steps to protect the site from illegal hunting. “Last year there were up to 20 protocols [documents indicating a fine] were drawn up regarding unauthorized hunting,” a ministry representative said.

The ministry disputed the idea that birds are dying due to the oil pollution, however, noting that its monitors have not found any dead birds during observation trips to Beshbarmag site. The ministry representative also underscored that the planned road through Beshbarmag is of “national importance” and does not present any danger for migrating birds.

“On the other hand, appropriate measures will be taken to minimize environmental impacts during road construction, which will minimize the impact on the fauna in that area,” the ministry said.

What would really help the site, however, is protective status. No word from the ministry if the government plans on granting one to Beshbarmag.

A flock of common starlings flies over Beş Barmaq (also written as Beshbarmag) in Azerbaijan. “Beshbarmag is one of the most important sites to see and count bird migration in the wider European region, with perhaps five million birds passing every year. But the place is not under any environmental protection at all and now a new highway is being constructed straight through the area,” notes Tomas Axén Haraldsson, Youth Development Officer at Ornithological Society of the Middle East (OSME).

“Azerbaijan is very rich and important in terms of birds. The diversity is stunning and millions of birds pass through on their migration. For such a geographically small country, the diversity of species in all the different habitats is the main attraction for foreign birdwatchers to come here," notes Tomas Axen Haraldsson, Youth Development Officer at Ornithological Society of the Middle East (OSME). A northern wheatear is one of the hundreds of bird species that migrate across Azerbaijan twic

A merlin, a type of falcon, eats its catch on the ground. Ornithologist Michael Heiss notes that plans to build a highway along the coast at the bottleneck will create problems for the development of a bird observatory at the site. “[A bird observatory] seems to be impossible due to the high noise level along the highway. Alternative places for a bird observatory are not available or have not yet been identified,” he says.

An Eurasian hobby, a medium-sized falcon, rests in a tree branch with a view of Beshbarmag mountain in the background.

The road is not the only challenge for Beshbarmag. The oil pumps in the area also present a danger: in addition to polluting the area, they claim the lives of hundreds of migratory birds.

Tired birds are attracted to the puddles of oil created by leaks, mistaking them for wetlands where they can rest. Instead, however, they die slowly as the oil coats their feathers.

The oil puddles that the birds mistake for wetlands are created by old, leaking oil drills.

“The oil production area itself was identified as a threat in autumn 2017, when hundreds of dead birds were found in several artificial oil ponds," ornithologist Michael Heiss wrote.

Their bodies actually dissolve in the oil over time.

Little bustards are another migrant species that fly through the bottleneck in large flocks. They are unfortunately one of the most hunted birds in Azerbaijan. Illegal hunting is a threat for the birds.

This pied avocet (named a threatened species) was wounded by a hunter’s bullet. During recent migration counts, the ornithologist team in the field could hear gunshots from dawn to dusk, despite the fact that it's forbidden to hunt outside of dedicated hunting zones in Azerbaijan. The fact that Beshbarmag lacks any official protection status makes it harder to stop hunting there.

Electric lines present another problem. Passerines and other small birds can rest on the lines, but some other species collide with lines and are electrocuted.

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