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Europe and Central Asia
5 Oct 2016

Bird Camp Besh 2016 – engaging young people in conservation in Azerbaijan

Bird Camp Besh (c) Tomas Axèn Haraldsson
By Tomas Axén Haraldsson, SOF (BirdLife in Sweden)

Tomas Axèn Haraldsson from SOF (BirdLife in Sweden) tells us all about BIRD CAMP BESH 2016 – an exciting new youth conservation initiative by the shores of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan.

Bird Camp Besh 2016 – four days of birding in one of the most spectacular migration bottlenecks in Europe. From 16 to 19 September, 27 young naturalists camped by the shores of the Caspian Sea  at Besh Barmag, Azerbaijan. Hailing from three countries (Azerbaijan, Germany and Sweden), and with ages ranging from high-school teens to PhD researchers, this motley crew of camper-conservationists was brought together by a common interest: bird migration.  

Back in 2006-2007, when German bird researchers started monitoring this site, they invited local Baku students to join them. This inspired the idea for a youth camp that could not only foster interest in conservation issues and facilitate cultural exchanges but also provide local job opportunities in sustainable eco-tourism. However, even the best ideas need time to take root; the first attempt to develop the project struggled to get off the ground.

Then, in October 2015, I led ten young Swedes from SOF-BirdLife to this amazing site and we counted some 250,000 birds in just three days: 200,000 Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), 16,000 Calandra Larks (Melanocorypha calandra), 8,500 Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) and just under 3,000 Pygmy Cormorants (Microcarbo pygmeus). We also took the opportunity to meet with Nature Friends Azerbaijan and AOS (BirdLife in Azerbaijan) and we starting drawing up plans for a bigger-scale visit the following autumn.

This time, our hard work and diplomatic efforts paid off. Project funds came in from SOF BirdLife, NABU (BirdLife in Germany), OSME (The Ornithological Society of the Middle East) and the Caucasus Initiative of BirdLife Europe & Central Asia – and we had lift off!

Less than a year later, participants were pitching their tents in the shadow of the imposing Beş Barmaq (literally ’Five Finger Mountain’) – one of the most famous sights in the Caucasus landscape. The peak is shrouded in mythical stories and natural wonders, attracting pilgrims and birdwatchers alike. It was the perfect site and perfect time to observe the majestic spectacle of the skies that is bird migration. We counted nearly 150 species in just four days. It’s difficult to choose the most iconic bird of this place, but the sight of 65 Little Bustards (Tetrax tetrax) resting on the steppe is one that will long stay with me. This globally near-threatened species has one of its most important wintering grounds further south in Azerbaijan and, by early November, day counts passing through the Besh Barmag bottleneck can get as high as 60,000 individuals.

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The camp had a jam-packed program: from bird studies, nature walks and workshops  to a mist netting demonstration and visits from more Baku students and AOS members. At the farewell dinner, over a traditional Azerbaijani meal, we toasted the sucess of the camp and excitedly swapped ideas about how to take this forward. There is a real feeling that youth nature conservation is enjoying a surge in popularity – all of us want to make sure that this great momentum is not lost but taken forward.

About the author

Tomas Axén Haraldsson is a Travel Leader for the Swedish Ornithological Foundation (SOF-BirdLife). To follow Tomas’ work in Azerbaijan and the broader region, visit www.tomasharaldsson.se and www.birdingaze.blogspot.se and follow the hashtag #birdcampbesh2016. 


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.