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.