Birding around Baku, Azerbaijan

Published by Napier Shelton (ewshelton AT

Participants: Napier Shelton


This article was first published in the September/October 2005
issue of Winging It, the newsletter of the American
Birding Association (

Less than 300 miles across, the small country of Azerbaijan has a surprising variety of habitats, from temperate forests, steppe, and semi-desert, to alpine tundra and wetlands. All this is home to an equally surprising variety of bird life, including many species coming from Russia as passage migrants or winterers.

About 340 of the 372 species recorded in Azerbaijan can be considered as within their “normal” range. While all but 6 percent of those 340 species are also part of the regular avifauna of Turkey, I have found, after living for a year and a half in Turkey and two years in Azerbaijan, that Azerbaijan has certain advantages over Turkey for a birder. Only one-ninth the size of Turkey, Azerbaijan offers just as good birding with far less travel required. Some species, such as Red-breasted Flycatcher, Rose-colored Starling, and certain raptors, are more common and widespread, and Azerbaijan has about 20 species that do not normally occur in Turkey at all, among them three alpine specialties: Caucasian Snowcock, Güldenstädt’s Redstart, and Great Rosefinch.

Fall through spring are the best seasons for birding Azerbaijan. Birders with just a few days will do best by taking day trips from Baku, the country’s capital and largest city, on the shore of the Caspian Sea. Within an hour’s drive are marshes along the Caspian, inland wetlands, semi-desert, and dry mountains.

As you travel west out of the city, past the botanical gardens, Blood Lake usually has a few waterbirds; just ahead, Red Lake and the marshy valley that drains into it are much better. The marsh is home to Common Teal, Purple Swamphen, Water Rail, and Common Moorhen. At Red Lake, spring is fairly good for shorebirds and late waterfowl, late summer is excellent for shorebirds, and winter finds the lake teeming with waterfowl. Among the more than 100 species I saw in this area were Pygmy Cormorant, Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Ruddy Shelduck, Long-tailed Duck, White-headed Duck, Eurasian Hobby, Temminck’s Stint, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, Mediterranean Gull, Whiskered Tern, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Finsch’s Wheatear, Bearded Reedling, and Woodchat Shrike. Birds of the dry hills northwest of Red Lake include Griffon Vulture and Finsch’s Wheatear.

About 45 minutes southwestward down the coast from Baku lies the Gobustan Archeological Reserve, where two hills sheltered humans from 15,000 B.C. to the 8th century or later. The rocky landscape is now home to Western Rock Nuthatch, Finsch’s Wheatear, Long-legged Buzzard, an occasional Red-billed Chough, and, in summer, Lesser Kestrel, European Bee-eater, Rufous Bush-Robin (Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin), and Olivaceous Warbler. Migrating raptors often pass by the hills at Gobustan. Isabelline Wheatear is common and Black-bellied Sandgrouse is uncommon in the nearby semi-desert lowlands.

Fifteen minutes farther south along the lake, you reach the town of Alat. Between the town and a point of land 6 miles northward up the coast lie level semi-desert and grassland, with short marshy vegetation near the shore. In fall and winter, grebes, gulls including Slender-billed, Eurasian Coots, and ducks congregate, the coots and ducks by the thousands. Many shorebirds are present fall through spring, with only a modest drop in winter. The greatest concentrations seem to be near a sewer outlet at Alat (grebes, gulls, and shorebirds) and at the point of land farther north (especially coots and ducks, with many other possibilities such as Greater Flamingo and White-tailed Eagle). That peninsular tip is most easily reached by parking at a village about 3 miles north of Alat and walking some 2 miles eastward to the shore. Waterproof footgear is advisable.

An hour’s drive east from Baku will take you to the tip of the Apsheron Peninsula, another good birding spot. In late fall and winter, there are usually many Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, Common Pochards, Red-crested Pochards, and Tufted Ducks along the causeway to Pirallahi Island. Along the east shore of the island, look for shorebirds, herons, and waterfowl. Hundreds of coots gather off the west shore. Between spring and fall you might see a Caspian Seal there, just its whiskered head projecting above the water; this small species gives birth in winter on the ice that forms at the north end of the Caspian Sea and spreads to the rest of the sea in other seasons.

Back on the mainland, turn south through Zira to a cluster of abandoned buildings where snake venom was once extracted. Between here and Turkan, a string of marshes behind the beach is good for shorebirds, herons, dabbling ducks, gulls, and terns. This area is especially interesting during migration.

One of my favorite places is Cape Gilazi, one hour north of Baku on the highway to Guba. Pools develop on much of this peninsula during wet weather, and at the tip, reached by a road through Shurabad and then a sandy but firm track, there is a lagoon surrounded by marshes. Among the many waterbirds, depending on the season, you may see Dalmatian Pelican, flamingos, spoonbills, Purple Swamphen, Whooper Swan, Great Black-headed Gull, Glossy Ibis, and Greater Sand-Plover. As at other productive wetlands in Azerbaijan, you are also likely to see or hear hunters. In wet seasons, the short spur road to Yeni Yashma off the main highway can be good for puddle ducks, Graylag Goose, herons, and Marsh Harrier. Interesting finds here have included Common Crane and White Stork (October), Imperial Eagle (December), and Red-breasted Goose (January, with the Graylags). The Red-breasted Goose, having shifted its main wintering ground to the Black Sea, is now rare in Azerbaijan.

If you want someone to guide you, Elchin Sultanov ( might be available for a modest fee. He is the country’s preeminent ornithologist but, like other scientists there, receives a nearly invisible salary.

Farther from Baku there are even more exciting places, such as the Qizilagach Bay area in the southeast, with half a million wintering waterbirds, and high-altitude tundra with Caucasian and Caspian Snowcocks. My book Where to Watch Birds in Azerbaijan provides maps and itineraries for 30 such areas, along with an annotated list of all Azerbaijan’s birds.

Napier Shelton is the author of Where to Watch Birds in Azerbaijan, available from the author at 3900 Cathedral Ave., NW, #502A, Washington, D.C. 20016 (

For a map of Azerbaijan try this link