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Waterworld: Tales From the Birdman

Birds are back in the Kızılırmak Delta

The transformation of the Black Sea’s vast Kızilırmak Delta from lost cause to paradise regained is a miraculous reversal of fortunes. The ornithologist Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu recalls his early visits and introduces the dazzling birds of the delta, while the anthropologist Caterina Scaramelli pays homage to a way of life that can only benefit both man and nature

  • A black tern (Chlidonias niger) delicately helps itself to a fish at Çernek Lake, in the east of the delta. On a calm day, the glassy surface of the lake offers the chance to witness some breathtaking natural sights
  • The long-eared owl (Asio otus): This nocturnal bird was spotted in the daytime at the mouth of the Boytar Channel. Perched in full view on a rock, he is obviously a recent arrival, and too exhausted to hide after flying over the Black Sea without a break
  • A map of the Kızılırmak Delta by Susanna Hickling (Cornucopia 57): The Kızılırmak flows into the Black Sea between the cities of Sinop and Samsun. The delta has been shaped by the prevailing west wind, which has created the main marshland area in its lee to the east. The delta falls under the aegis of Samsun, whose longstanding mayor, Yusuf Ziya Yılmaz, has been instrumental in its rescue. Highly sensitive, strictly protected areas of the KDWBS (Kızılırmak Delta Wetland and Bird Sanctuary), known as ‘nominated property’, are shown in dark green on the map

Nizamettin and I stood gazing out to sea as we waited by the shore in the Atakum district of Samsun for the dolmuş that would take us to the Kızılırmak Delta. Suddenly, an eerie, deepthroated sound assailed our ears, electrifying us. I had never heard anything like it. Then I saw them. A pair of Arctic loons, or black-throated divers (Gavia arctica), were approaching from the north to take up winter residence. Right in front of us they glided, skimming the water’s surface, so close they almost touched it.

It was November 2005. I was 19 years old, in my seventh year of birdwatching, and this was my first sighting of the species. We hadn’t even reached the delta, and already here was something new. I felt a flush of excitement and, though I tried to play it cool, my heart was pounding. Ever since I was a child I had dreamed of visiting the Kızılırmak River Delta. Where was that dolmuş? By now I was almost beside myself with impatience. What we wanted that day – all we wanted – was to see a few rare birds in the delta.

It did not cross our minds that the preservation of one of the most important natural environments in Turkey would become for us a matter of grave and abiding concern. Our trip was to open our eyes in more ways than one. Aboard the dolmuş at last, I was astonished by the intense green of the fertile landscape around me, under a grey, overcast sky. And there were birds – more and more of them, even before we reached the delta proper.

Our plan was to walk the full 20 kilometres across the eastern arm of the delta, but I began to fret that I had built it up too much in my mind – that the reality couldn’t match my expectations. Nizamettin was from around those parts, though, and I comforted myself that he knew the terrain. He was a relatively recent convert to the hobby that had brought us together, but, as an art teacher, he had an eye, a visual acuity, which would be very useful when it came to recognising – and photographing – different avian species. “It’s going to be windy,” he said as we stood to alight. And so it proved. Windy and deserted.

When the dolmuş set us down outside a village named Yörükler the only sound was the crow of a rooster, the only sign of human habitation smoke rising from the chimneys of a few scattered houses. A street led us through what was clearly a recent settlement, hemmed in by forest, the huge trees a riot of bare, twisted branches, magnified by their reflections in the standing water.

Within no more than a few hundred metres we began to spot woodpeckers, songbirds, several common buzzards, and in no time we’d jotted down in our notebooks the names of 30 species. Who knew how many there would be by the end of the day? We were just passing the last couple of houses, and I was gazing up at the sky, binoculars at the ready, when a jeering voice demanded: “What are you looking at?” Two men confronted us – one thickset, in a fisherman’s beret; the other, his sidekick, in a filthy jacket, jeans and bright yellow wellingtons. Even those boots, I figured, would not be much use against the waters flooding the nearest garden, lapping against the house walls and threatening to float away a boat that was lying there.

“What are you looking at?” the big man again challenged us, even more aggressively. “The birds,” I said, trying to sound cooler than I felt. “What birds? There aren’t any.” “Oh, but there are,” I insisted. “More than 300 species have been recorded here. There are…” I began to read from my notes. “Baloney! There are 15 kinds at most. We should know – we live here. If there were more, we’d see them, wouldn’t we? We’ve never even heard of half of those. It’s people like you who are going to get us turned out of our homes.” “Just because you’ve never seen something,” said Nizamettin reasonably, “it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” With that we turned and walked away, shaken by our first brush with the inhabitants of an illegal settlement that, over the next 13 years, would spread like a metastasised tumour toward the heart of the Galeriç Forest.

Not for the beauties of nature had these summer villas appeared, but to make a killing when property prices rose in the area. The local wildlife, and the conservationists it attracted, posed a threat to these men’s prospective profits, and I’m sure they’d have liked to wipe out every last bird if that was what it took to get rid of us.

On we marched, following the one track that leads between a lake and the sea to the Boytar Channel. It is an otherworldly landscape of sand dunes, brushwood thickets and strangelooking tufts of grass, some over two metres tall. On our way we saw thousands of birds in a variety of habitats – 82 species in a matter of a few hours. Since that day I have visited the delta probably a hundred times, but those first impressions have never left me, while my anxiety for the future of that watery dreamscape has only grown with the passing of time.

The Kızılırmak is the longest river river to run its course entirely within Turkey, bringing alluviums from the interior of Anatolia to deposit them on the fertile Bafra Plain, west of Samsun, before it flows into the sea. The largest area of intact wetland on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, the delta is a mix of open water, dunes, marsh vegetation including vast reed beds (reedcutting is an important local industry), forest and farmland. The Galeriç is one of Turkey’s very few seasonally-flooded forests, comprising mostly common alders and ash trees.

Almost all of the wetland is state owned and protected at the national level. Some 21,700 hectares are protected under the Ramsar Convention (an intergovernmental treaty on wetlands). In 1998 a site of 5,174 hectares, encompassing the Çernek Lake and its surroundings, was designated as a Wildlife Development Area. Of the 485 bird species recorded in Turkey, 356 have been seen here, and the delta is a breeding ground for at least 157.

Among 37 bird species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as globally threatened, six breed and 10 winter on the property. The site is very important for the breeding, wintering and passage of waterbirds, with over 10,000 waders passing through in spring. Thirty-five species of passerine breed in the forests, and the while-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) has been known to breed here. While I cannot travel back in time to see the Kızılırmak Delta as it was a hundred years ago, I have had the privilege of speaking with Fikret Can, an octogenarian from Bafra who has memories of how it was from the 1950s to the 1970s. He surprised me when he referred to the delta today as çorak, barren wasteland, until he described to me the impenetrable forest that it had once been. “Even the wild boars couldn’t get into it,” he said. In the 1950s the whole of the 50-kilometre coastal strip between Samsun and Bafra was covered with trees so enormous that three people holding hands could not encircle their girth.

The road linking the two towns was like a tunnel of overarching branches. Cars making the journey would do so, day or night, with headlights on. Fikret Can’s family had a farm on a piece of deforested land, and to protect their fields of potatoes and maize from wild boars and bears they would mount guard every night. They could not have slept anyway, for the honking of thousands of geese flying to and from the nearby lake. Packs of wolves roamed free, and vultures hovered overhead. “When we lost one of our cows,” said Fikret, “we would see where the vultures landed, and, sure enough, there would be our cow, its bones picked clean.”

The destruction of the forest got under way in 1954, when the government began to encourage tree-felling to clear the land for agriculture. It was not until the 1960s, however, that the process of uprooting the mammoth trees was undertaken in earnest, when a German company arrived to look for oil. After that the water authority wrought even more damage in the interests of opening drainage channels. And still today the threats to the delta continue.

The Bafra Irrigation Project, if implemented, will reclaim all that is left of the wetland. Other major concerns include pollution from agricultural run-off and untreated sewage, reed-burning to improve grazing conditions, overfishing, illegal hunting, and sand-dredging. On the positive side, one recent development has been the demolition of 350 holiday homes in the forest (including, no doubt, those owned by the two gentlemen who confronted us that first day). For this long-awaited move we are heartily grateful to Yusuf Ziya Yılmaz, mayor of Samsun, who has been supportive in so many ways.

We are indebted also to Altay Cengizer, an ambassador and now Turkey’s permanent representative at Unesco, for his efforts to draw international attention to the plight of the delta. Thanks to these men, the Kızılırmak Delta Wetland and Bird Sanctuary was placed on Unesco’s “tentative list” of World Heritage Sites on April 13, 2016. In just one year the application was completed to have it placed on the permanent list (a process that usually takes four years), and we should know by June or July 2019 if it has been successful. In the meantime, all we can do is to wait – and hope against hope that the wonders of the Kızılırmak Delta will be preserved for future generations.

Further reading: notes on the Kızılırmak Delta by Dr Mustafa Güler

To read the full article, purchase Issue 57

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Issue 57, May 2018 Black Sea Miracle
£12.00 / $15.25 / €14.01
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 57
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    Prodigiously talented and duplicitous, Parvus Efendi was a larger-than-life writer, arms dealer, fixer and bon vivant. Norman Stone sizes up the grand capitalist who oiled the wheels of the Russian Revolution and ingratiated himself with the Young Turks

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    Beloved of birds and bees, prized by Ottoman sultans and Bourbon kings, pears are a particular joy eaten ripe from the tree. But cooking coaxes the flavour out of even those mass-market varieties grown for a long shelf life and ripened in cold storage

  • The painter who vanished

    Born into a family of much-travelled artists, Joseph Schranz made his name in Ottoman Istanbul on the eve of the Crimean War with finely detailed, atmospheric panoramas of the Bosphorus. Admired by the Palace and by a new breed of intrepid tourist, he even trained a generation of Turkish artists to observe nature. Yet Schranz’s life in Turkey is an almost total mystery and his known works are tantalisingly rare

  • The Summer of Love

    With her discoveries at Cnidus she was the first female archaeologist to become a household name. But Aphrodite was the undoing of Iris Love. By Rupert Scott. New York portrait by Jürgen Frank

  • Waterworld: Three Days That Saved the World

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  • The Sleeping Beauty

    Time has stood still at the Kavafyan Konak, the oldest surviving mansion on the Bosphorus. Abandoned for 20 years in the village of Bebek, it is a rare example of the refinement and restraint of 18th-century Ottoman design. From a fresco of a formal garden – recalling the fashionable obsession with horticulture – to a trompel’oeil parasol rosette, original decorative details survive, decayed and faded but intact. Text and photographs by Burak Çetintaş

  • Riders of the Lost Paths: Seven Days in the Saddle

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Buy the issue
Issue 57, May 2018 Black Sea Miracle
£12.00 / $15.25 / 491.58 TL
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