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Iran, Land of Enchantment (1 Viewer)

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Europe
Few birders visit Iran, fewer still that travel independently. But leave aside the preconceptions and venture beyond the media stereotype, the country is truly an amazing place, inhabited by a most gracious people and blessed with a culture second to none and landscapes that incorporate all from high Alpine peaks and lush green valleys through to vast desert vistas, stark coastlines and shimmering marine environments dotted with corals, intertidal flats and mangroves. And then there are the birds - along with an impressive array of desert and mountain species and an unrivalled selection of waterbirds, Iran is home to some mighty fine specialities, including Grey Hypocolius, Iraqi Babbler, Sind Pied Woodpecker and, the jewel in the crown, inhabiting the remote deserts of the interior, the enigmatic Pleske's Ground Jay.

Never has a country humbled me as much as Iran, the people day after day left me in awe, a deep warmth and genuine welcome at every turn.

And so it was, after conquering the hurdles to get a visa, the trip was ready to begin...


12 August.

With visa tucked into my pocket, off I went. A straightforward flight down to Istanbul to await my late evening transfer onto Turkish Air for the final three-hour hop to Tehran.



13 August. Hot in Minab.

2.30 a.m. arrival in Tehran. Customs and immigration a breeze, straight into a taxi for a dash across Tehran to the domestic airport. 6.00 a.m., Iran Air departure, a two-hour internal flight to Bandar Abbas, the port city at the head of the Straits of Hormoz and heart of the sweltering south.

Stepped off the plane in Bandar Abbas, an immediate assault by hot humid air. From the runway, an Indian Roller flew over, African Rock Martins mobbing, let the birding commence. An hour and a half later, having successfully navigated through taxi drivers and into a savari, I was 125 km east at my first destination. Sandwiched between arid slopes rising to the east and luxuriant date plantations, Minab would be home for the first night. 10 a.m., now settled into the Sadaf Hotel and mightily impressed that air con blasted my room with a nice chill, it was time to jump in at the deep end. Already 35 C and hyper humid, it felt like being whacked with a brick as I walked out of the hotel! North of town, a short stroll from the hotel, date palms stretched as far as I could see, flanking a dry river bed - off I strode, an Eastern Pied Wheatear soon on the list, See-see Partridge, Little Green Bee-eater and more Indian Rollers following in short succession. I was already dripping, sweat drenching my tee-shirt ...this was going to be no picnic in the park! Two scrawny dogs wilted under the first palms, mad dogs and Englishmen came to mind. 'Salaam salaam', friendly locals peered on with amusement as this foreigner staggered by. In the shade of trees, I gulped down most of my water, White-cheeked Bulbuls and Purple Sunbirds flitted, a Sand Fox sauntered off, seemingly bewildered that I'd disturbed his slumber. Laughing Doves everywhere, one White-breasted Kingfisher glared down from a stump of a broken palm. Finding an irrigation canal, I set this as my path, regular stops to plunge my head in the refreshing waters, it had now hit 40 C, the humidity was absolutely stifling. Lacking one night's sleep, unacclimatised and quite possibly already dehydrated, I began to question my sanity. I pushed on regardless, Yellow-throated Sparrow added to the collection. Somewhere in these palms, Sind Pied Woodpecker occasionally lurks, a localised semi-endemic confined to just a few localities in the far south-east of Iran and a slither of neighbouring Pakistan. Search as I did, I was not going to see it this day however - as the early afternoon sun began to pickle my brain, a guy on a motorbike pulled up. Without question I jumped on and off we went, the breeze a relief. A few kilometres up, he dropped me off and I wandered into a village. Much in need of refreshment, my second 'mighty impressed' moment of the day came with the discovery that the village kiosk sold refrigerated milk ...ah, I was beginning to love Iran already! Clutching my litre of milk, I trotted off into a grove to savour my precious find - gulp, gulp, gulp ...then I spotted some eyes peering down - a Spotted Little Owl, what luck!

By now, I needed a break. An asphalt road left the village, so I reasoned it must somehow connect with Minab. Another motorbike pulled up, I jumped on again. After 5km, we reached a junction - he pointed to a long lonely road, the way to Minab. Not disheartened however, I was already learning that Iranians are people of incredible friendliness ...and sure enough, the very first car stopped and took me all the way back to my hotel. Thinking the climate of this southern province might just kill me, I collapsed on my bed.

Lulled by the air-conditioning into believing it might have cooled down, I ventured out again at 4 p.m.. It hadn't cooled down at all! I decided to explore wider and hitched a lift 20 km down to the village of Tiyab, a small fishing settlement on a creel leading to the Straits of Hormoz. Most atmospheric, traditional wooden lenge boats beached on the mud flats, Western Reef Herons and Indian Pond Herons picking their beneath. Another litre of milk downed, the fourth of the day, and I set off to find birds - unfortunately low tide, so most birds probably kilometres away, but Greater Sand Plovers and assorted commoner species suggested more in the offing. As the town came to an end, a boatyard seemed a good vantage point. On the gravel court, a flock of Indian Sand Larks, a truly unexpected bonus, while overhead a Gull-billed Tern circled. Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters next, but the highlight of the day was waiting just to the south. As the sun began to set, the heat mercifully dropping a degree or two, I sat and watched the comings and goings, a Saunder's Tern fishing, Pied Stonechats on saltmarsh opposite and then the piece de la resistance, two Great Stone Plovers emerged onto the mud bank just in front, magical. Giant stone curlews with a stonking great bill, these birds were the perfect ending to my first day, a third appearing more distant.

Almost dark, time to get back. Iranian hospitality proved itself again, I didn't even need to start hitching, a car pulled up and asked if I needn't a lift. Direct back to my hotel, time for me to sleep!


To be continued...
 
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Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Europe
Few birders visit Iran, fewer still that travel independently. Thank goodness

Iran is a huge country - nigh on 2000 km from corner to corner - the region abutting Pakistan and Afghanistan does have safety issues, ie. the zone within 100 km of the border, the rest of the country is completely safe for the traveller and certainly there is far less risk than in most major areas of the world that are commonly visited by tourists. I have travelled extensively in over 100 countries and, in common with everybody else I have spoken to who has actually visited Iran, this country is not only the most welcoming, but also the most relaxed to visit ...bar a rather cruel sun ;)
 
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Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Europe
Not many pictures on the first day, a couple to fairly poor shots to start things off...
 

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Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Europe
No hassles at Iranian immigration, despite being a British national, then?

No hassles anywhere. I was walking around with binoculars and long lenses and everyone, the police, army at road checks, the population at large, treat you as a guest and offer nothing but a genuine welcome ...finding you are from England, simply produces 'ah England, welcome, welcome, come drink tea'. The only time I saw the inside of a police station was in a small remote village where, accompanied by many smiles and tea, the officers welcomed me to their village.

Sure, if you start photographing military bases or something stupid, then you will probably find yourself in a sticky situation, but that is a pretty worldwide response.

If you want hassles at immigration, I can recommend another country visited rather more frequently ;)
 
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Vectis Birder

Itchy feet
No hassles anywhere. I was walking around with binoculars and long lenses and everyone, the police, army at road checks, the population at large, treat you as a guest and offer nothing but a genuine welcome ...finding you are from England, simply produces 'ah England, welcome, welcome, come drink tea'. The only time I saw the inside of a police station was in a small remote village where, accompanied by many smiles and tea, the officers welcomed me to their village.

Sure, if you start photographing military bases or something stupid, then you will probably find yourself in a sticky situation, but that is a pretty worldwide response.

If you want hassles at immigration, I can recommend another country visited rather more frequently ;)

Hmmm. I wonder what sort of response you'll get *there* on your next visit when they see an Iranian stamp in your passport? ;)

Seriously though, it's an interesting account of a - to us westerners used to media hype - mysterious country.
 

Steven Astley

Well-known member
Jos

I am sure you was greated with a warm welcome, the Iranians I have met have been friendly people, that doesn't neccessarily mean a place isn't potentially dangerous and always good to get yourself clued up on places and official foreign office advice is a good starting point.
 
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Richard Klim

-------------------------
Jos, Iran is definitely close to the top of my must-visit list (both for birds and culture). But, August - what a month to choose! As you say, mad dogs and Englishmen...

Richard ;)
 

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Europe
... official home office advice is a good starting point.

FCO advice is about as politically biased as it could get - read pages for Iran or any other country less liked by good ol Blighty's government, even Kenya, and it lists every terrorism event that has occurred in recent history, eg an unsuccessul attempt to down a plane in Kenya in 2002. Yet read the page of our friend the U.S. and it does not even mention the attempt to down a plane just last Christmas, nor the the rather major event of 9-11 in 2001.

For real travel advice regarding safety in any country of the world, I would recommend Lonely Planet and its thorntree as a starting point.


Anyhow, this is a thread about birds and my experiences in Iran, feel free to visit the country and post differently if you experience anything at odds with my experience :t:
 
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Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Europe
But, August - what a month to choose! As you say, mad dogs and Englishmen...

Once used to the weather, August is rather good - catching the beginning of the return migration, good for waders and warblers, etc. I also reckoned it would offer me reasonable chances of the elusive Ground Jay by virtue that numbers must be at their highest post breeding season ;)

Overall though, April is probably the best month to visit.
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
I passed through Dubai in the first week of September a few years ago and remember the heat - although it was more "baseball bat" than "brick" for me. The things we do for a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. and for a Pleske's Ground Jay . . . I'd do it all over again!

Cheers
Mike
 

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Europe
14 August. Down to Jask.

Day two, rose pre-dawn for a return to the date palms - it did not take long to understand that success on this trip to Iran would frequently depend on being in the best areas for the first three or four hours of the day. And a good start it was, a mere 28 C as the sun rose, Indian Silverbills chattering away in bushes, Indian Rollers and Little Green Bee-eaters heralding the new day and, no sooner had I entered the palm groves, my second Spotted Little Owl of the trip. Then another, and another ...a family of Spotted Little Owls! Rather photogenic, of appeal to mobbing birds too - White-cheeked Babblers, Purple Sunbirds and a couple of Syke's Warblers all in attendance. Further along, Graceful Prinias, my first Afghan Babblers of the trip (a recent split from Common Babbler), plus Ring-necked Parakeets and two White-breasted Kingfishers. T'was now past 10.30 a.m., the heat was soaring again to its giddy heights, I sought the canal to dunk my head.

No Sind Pied Woodpecker, but I had one more possible site for them, so rather than slave under the midday sun, I returned to the sanctuary of the hotel, enjoying another couple of litres of milk on the way. A productive way to utilize the hottest hours I decided was to travel onward, so bidding my air-conditioning farewell, off I went. Destination two, the remote Jegen woodlands, 255 km further to the south-east. Took a savari to Jask, then chanced my luck hitch-hiking again - the road east a quiet affair, winding its way some 400 km to Chabahar and then onward to Pakistan beyond. Brown-necked Ravens circled above, I gazed around at the stark desert slopes on all sides, a pick-up came driving along - my saviour, a Baluchi, took me 30 km to a small village. Declining an offer of overnight accommodation, another wait got me a lift the final few kilometres to the road bridge at Jegen.

No water in the river, but scattered trees stretched north and south, mostly acacias, old and gnarled. A Southern Grey Shrike scattered small birds from scrub, African Rock Martins soared. I pitched my tent as the sun began to sink, the next day would be very good I thought to myself.



15 August. Jegen and Soorgalm.

Dawn in the Jegen woodlands, a pleasant 30 C, a trace of high cloud and humidity relatively low. In acacia and tamarix, great fuss from White-cheeked Bulbuls, Grey Francolins already calling beyond. So was the dawn chorus, added effects by Laughing Doves and Little Green Bee-eaters. Set about my day's wanders, a certain woodpecker high on the much-wanted stakes. Eastern Pied Wheatears sentinel on twisted skeletal boughs, Red-wattled Plovers strutting on sun-baked muds, exploding into alarm at my approach. Much activity in the dusty bushland - abundant Purple Sunbirds, Yellow-throated Sparrows also proving so. Movements from the depths, out pops a Rufous Bush Robin, the first of four over the next couple of hours. Productive birding here, random ambling notching up many birds, including both Syke's and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, several flocks of Afghan Babblers, one flock of Rose-coloured Starlings and, after extra fodder with Indian Rollers and Hoopoe, finally a tap-tap-tap some way distant. Set off in pursuit, a Grey Francolin scuttling away as I went. Arrived at the place of tap-tap ...silence! A dead tree adjacent held a Little Green Bee-eater on top, a Laughing Dove midway down. I scanned nearby trees, nothing. I looked back at the dead tree, Little Green Bee-eater still on top, but all change midway down - gone the dove, one smart Sind Pied Woodpecker in its place! A couple of quick photographs and then off it went, me following. More Rose-coloured Starlings, more Yellow-throated Sparrows, then I relocated the key boy, now part of a pair - male and female Sind Pied Woodpecker edging up opposite sides of a small scraggy trunk, playing peep-po around the tree at each other, then shuffling up again.

Excellent, it was barely 8.00 a.m. and I'd found my target, a species I thought would be far more elusive. With my next destination requiring a hike of 20 km across desert, or so I thought, it seemed prudent to make best use of the still relatively cool morning. So I returned to my tent, decamped and headed up to the road back to Jask. Only had to wait about 15 minutes for a car to come and he stopped, to Jask he was going. I only wanted 12 km however, the point where a small dead-end track went down to the small village of Soorgalm and to the sea beyond, 10 km to the village and 10 km more to the sea. I did not expect any vehicles on this road, I started to walk, the temperature now 35 C, but a light breeze holding the humidity at bay. Crested Larks ran between stunted tufts of vegetation, a Bonelli's Eagle laboured through hazy sky distant. Fortune smiled down upon me - I had walked little more than 2 km when a dilapidated pick-up came trundling along and took me to the village, my long slog now thankfully slashed in half. Four Rose-coloured Starlings in the village and a lonely track leading out, drifting sand creating mini dunes to block its way, forlorn-looking camels browsing acacia thicket.

From the village, a most friendly guy emerged. Did his best to persuade me the folly of wandering yonder, invited me in for refreshment, but bid me well as we parted and I continued my walk. A few minutes later, this time upon a motorbike, he was back, 'I will take you' ...Iranian kindness in action again. Rather nervy going over little sand dunes perched precariously upon the back of a little motorbike, but time went by and there appeared the blue waters of the Gulf of Oman, intertidal flats and patches of mangrove lying to the east and west. Rather bemused that I might want to be left in such a desolate albeit beautiful spot, off went my friend, a smile and wave as he vanished back into the sands inland. I sat on the beach and pondered - 15 km to the west, across featureless desert and shimmering flats, lay one of Iran's richest mangrove forests, largely undisturbed and sometime haunt of Goliath Heron amongst its other riches. Did I really want to stagger all that way and camp, eking out my meagre water supply till next day? Did I hell! Exactly where I was suited me just fine - with Western Reef Herons, Indian Pond Herons, Spoonbills and Greater Flamingos all plodding the shallows adjacent and waders dotted to the horizon, there was plenty to keep me happy for a while. Ospreys passed over, squatting down onto the beach, Saunder's Terns buzzed small creeks. With a nice breeze, to the waders I turned my attention. Again the tide was not in my favour, distant dots I chose to ignore, but close at hand, a grand little selection - Terek Sandpipers common enough, Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers strutting alongside Kentish Plovers, a nice trio for comparison, plus all the regulars, including Marsh Sandpipers, Little Stints and Turnstones. A bit of squinting and out there shuffled bulky white blobs far away - relocation was necessary, I knew what they would be. Walked a kilometre or so along a sand bar, in front of me there two of them walked, the mother of all waders, splendid Crab Plovers. Seen them in five countries now, but never do they fail to impress, a wader of charisma and style. All was well with the world, the Osprey sat nearby, Great White Egrets winged over, Sandwich and Gull-billed Terns squabbled over the surf, but with early afternoon edging on, I decided to hike out. Taking a north-west bearing, lots of lovely desert should pass my way I supposed, Hoopoe Larks and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse potential compensation for the gruelling walk I know it would be. Half an hour I walked, a small dust cloud then appearing on the horizon, hurtling directly towards me. Unbelievable, it was a car - a pick-up full of Baluchi fishermen to be exact, all on the way back from the coast. Out they turfed one guy from the front, in they plonked me. Not a common word spoken, but happy they were, big grins and much chatter. Twenty kilometres later, we pulled into a simple mud-brick compound - into a cool dark room I was directed, the door closed behind me. Not a kidnapping, but an obligatory stop for chai. Iran was humbling me again, here at the heart of Ramadan, when they themselves could not eat or drink, there I sat in their spartan home, their only concern the welfare of their guest, lunch whipped up, a never ending flow of tea alongside. Not for the last time on this trip, I felt a pang of shame that I come from the 'enlightened' West, a West that vilifies this nation without knowing a thing about its people, land or culture. Yet never a hint of animosity from a single Iranian on my whole trip, just simple plain warmth and welcome. Back to my unexpected tea stop however, eventually I supposed it time to venture out again and began to thank my hosts. Not a thing of it, they ushered me back into the room and vanished. 'Oh well', I thought, 'looks like I'll be here for the day'. Somewhere in our limited communications, I'd explained that I was returning to Bandar Abbas, over 340 km to the north-east. My 'captors' returned with another guy in a another pick-up, 'Minab, sells fish'. From the desert wilds, these guys had found me a lift, what gents.

So it was, I made it back to Bandar Abbas in time for a little evening birding. Along the seafront, incredibly humid and sticky, the sun began to set, gulls and terns putting on a most majestic show to end the day. In a swirling mass, 150 Slender-billed Gulls dallied over the waters, a few Yellow-legged Gulls too - but it was the terns that most impressed ...Gull-billed, Sandwich, Swift, Saunder's, Whiskered and Black, all rather nice. A small creek bulged with Black-winged Stilts, Terek Sandpipers pushed their way through, Marsh Sandpipers tenderly picked at the fringes.

Night fell, Brown Rats loitered on muggy street corners, but it was air-conditioning and litres of milk for me again, another splendid day over.
 
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Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Europe
A few shots from days two and three.
 

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