NE Turkey, from 25 April until 10 May 2015

Black Sea Coast, high plains around Kars, Ararat and Lake Van.

 Where to go during the spring holidays? For Laura salamanders and other Urodeles form mostly the main targets on any herping venture while I definitely wanted to see some nice viper species, preferably outside of Europe. Immediately we thought of Turkey where we have been more often. In particular the more eastern parts of this vast country lured us with many species new to both of us. This area has been on our wishlist for long so we decided to spend our two weeks of spring holidays in this more seldom visited part of Turkey.

The northern parts of our route brought us to the Black Sea Coast which is characterised by the Pontic Alps, steep forested slopes with high rainfall and accompanying high humidity. The southern parts of the Pontic Alps give way to the same steep slopes and deep valleys as on the north side, but are more drier in character and provide shelter for the more mediterranean species.The high plateaus around Kars and the Mount Ararat are characterised by vast meadows interspersed with rocky outcrops and remaining parts of dry steppe. South of Lake Van this becomes more lush again and forested valleys and flowing streams become more prominent. It becomes clear that we had a wide variety of habitats to search in. An equally wide variety of amphibian and reptile species can be found here of which we managed to find roughly half. For some areas (in particular the higher altitude sites) the timing of our trip was rather early, some parts still held snow or we noticed that animals just came out of hibernation e.g. lizards not in breeding colours yet, vipers still localised around hibernacula, no breeding activity of Pelodytes.

Overview of prospected sites.
Overview of prospected sites.

All images © Bobby Bok & Laura Tiemann

25th of April 2015

We flew from Munich to Istanbul and with a small delay we were worried if we would make the connecting flight to Trabzon. Luckily we had a four hour delay on that second flight so it was no problem and we arrived past midnight at the Turkish Black Sea Coast. The atmosphere of a Turkish hammam and deafening Turkish music on the plane already put us in a good mood. The guy from the rental car company we had to call awake but without too much problems we could collect the car and start our herping adventure. We drove to Ikizdere where we would stay in the luxurious Ridos Termal and Spa. On the way to the hotel we checked out a roadside ditch and quickly found several Caucasian Brown Frogs (Rana macrocnemis) including spawn and larvae and Northern banded Newts (Ommatotriton ophryticus) in full breeding plumage.

26th of April 2015

We drove back to the coast but first photographed the beautiful newts of the night before and this time we also saw a single Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca) and many Red-bellied Lizards (Darevskia parvula ssp. adjarica). Some of the lizards were even curious enough to come and check out what we were doing with a newt in an aquarium!

When we arrived in the Senyuva Valley we first tried to reach a spot for Vipera barani but soon gave up as the roads became ever more narrower, muddier and steeper. Down in the valley again we photographed another Darevskia species. The big Spiny-tailed Lizard (Darevskia rudis) might have beautiful breeding colours later in the year (see for example the report from Klooiplek), these animals came just out of hibernation and were still slightly muddy from spending several months in a burrow. This species typically inhabits boulders and large rocky outcrops and we would found them throughout our stay in this area. We tried to found Grass Snakes in the late afternoon in a patch of perfect habitat but strangely didn't find anything but lizards and a few wary police officers asking if we were looking for snakes.

We checked in in the Hotel Dere in Çamlıhemşin and enjoyed a fabulous Saç Kavurma meal before trying our luck with the local amphibians. On a meadow flooded by broken irrigation canals we could easily find several Nortern Banded Newts, Eastern Tree Frogs (Hyla orientalis), Caucasian Brown Frogs and a single Grass Snake (Natrix natrix scutata). Further inland we found many Caucasian Toads (Bufo verrucosissimus) on the road including a few couples in amplexus, we escorted the animals safely of the road before driving on. In a small valley we found a single larvae of Caucasian Salamander (Mertensiella caucasica).

On the way to some prime Pelodytes habitat we encountered some problems as we were driven of the road by a big Landrover. Several angry man jumped out and urged us to get out of the car. Hardly an inviting preposition but we did nothing wrong so what to do. They spoke no English and wanted to search the car as they thought we wanted to take animals with us. These concearned villagers seem to care a lot about their local amphibians but on the way back we only encountered DOR animals most likely killed by a Landrover...

27th of April 2015

After breakfast in the hotel we again tried our luck for the Natrix species but soon ran into park rangers who were angry with us for leaving the path and were also completely convinced we were looking for new pets, telling stories about that you need a permit to photograph animals in this area(?). They sent us out of the park, leaving us feeling little welcome in this country and we drove on further east. Along the road there were people having picknicks, making fires and leaving trash behind everywhere but that is apparently no problem for parkrangers.

Around Hopa we left our luggage in Hotel Cihan and went to check out the tea plantages for snakes. Despite the heat we quickly found several shy Derjugin's Lizards (Darevskia derjugini), an Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica) and a beautiful male Caucasus Viper (Vipera kaznakovi), both along a forested edge within a vast field of tea plants. Also here we encountered some curious locals but pretending to be regular tourists they quickly buggered of. Higher up in the hills we selected several good looking valleys for nocturnal searches for our two main amphibian desiderata and after a tasty kebap in Hopa we went out. Not for long we found several Caucasian Brown Frogs. Under a bridge conditions in the otherwise parched forests were apparently good for Caucasian Salamanders (Mertensiella caucasica), besides finding copious amounts of larvae in several age classes we also found several adults clinging to the steep walls under the bridge or sitting in the fast flowing shallow water. What a fantastic creatures to see in the wild! Back at the car there was of course military police but luckily these were friendly and offered us tea.

28th of April 2015

Another shot for Caucasus Viper was unsuccesful because of a chilly wind and a clouded sky. At a steep rocky slope we found Derjugin's Lizards, Levant Green Lizard (Lacerta media), Grass Snake, Eastern Slow Worm and a fully warmed up Transcaucasian Nose-horned Viper (Vipera transcaucasiana) that managed to escape our cameras to much frustration. Another search site yielded only observations of Red-bellied Lizard and Spiny-tailed Lizard. After finding so many Caucasian Salamanders the night before we tried our luck for Caucasian Parsley Frog (Pelodytes caucasicus) again after nightfall. This species has an odd range with its nearest relatives living in SW Europe and predominantly lives in moist shaded forests. We found a perfect spot for them and in this fully shaded roadside gorge there were stagnant puddles with many larvae of last years of this species. This special Anuran reproduces very late in the year (starting as late as May or rather June) making sure the streams have reduced to a minimum after the snow melt in spring. Larvae often spend the winter in the streams and metamorphose the year after.

29th of April 2015

In the morning we drove on to the village of Esenkiyi. Great circumstances but all we found was Eastern Slow Worm, Levant Green Lizard and Derjugin's Lizards. Already when we arrived we thought the villagers looked a bit strange at us but when we arrived at the car people came running from every corner and we where surrounded by military police and locals. None of them spoke English and we tried to explain we are just interested in taking pictures of nature. Also this they did not understand and the police wanted us to delete the pictures of flowers (!). They were obviously looking for signs that we had snakes hidden somewhere in the car and one local was obviously dissappointed we didn't have any. This vicious bloke was determined and looked for signs of our "crimes" everywhere, grabbing my arm and pointing out the "Yilan" (=snake) tattoo on my wrist to the police. It was just embarrassing. After a while a rather educated soldier was brought in to translate and he also made clear that this is a strange town and that he also does not get a thing what was the problem here. He also made clear to be happy about the fact he only has to serve another month and can go back to Istanbul. After 3,5 hours(!) of wasting our time we had to sign a silly piece of paper and we could go on. The perfect conditions for snakes were wasted and when trying again for Nose-horned Viper near the town of Borcka we ran into another bunch of villagers surrounding us, making phonecalls and wasting more time before we could finally move on. One of the villagers knew the scientific names Bufo bufo, Bufo viridis and Lacerta viridis. After explaining his outdated nomenclature we had enough of these tiring affairs and had a little siesta underneath an old oak. In the late afternoon we tried again our luck with vipers but to no avail.

We drove on to Artvin and went to Hotel Konak which is Turkish for "your pillow looks as if a Jack Russell Terrier has been sleeping on it for several weeks". Also the entire town was out of running water and electricity (strange if the town is surrounding by massive dams) so we had a quick meal and went out to look for Caucasian Newt (Lissotriton lantzi). There is an old record for this species around Artvin and we searched many ponds, streams and puddles finding only Eastern Tree Frogs and Caucasian Brown Frogs. Back in the hotelroom the water problem was fixed apparently as our room was flooded. No problem as it was much cleaner now than before. Of to bed!

30th of April 2015

After a yummy breakfast in Artvin we drove in the direction of Ardahan. On the way we encountered a roadblock as there was a new road being built and excavators were scrutinizing the mountain. So that meant waiting again. In the good looking valley near Ardahan we were hoping to find Blunt-nosed Viper but with the cold weather conditions we only found Red-bellied Lizards, Eastern Slow Worm and Green Toad larvae. We drove on to Kars but also here the weather wasn't prosperous as we only found Uzzell's Lizards (Darevskia uzzelli) and Smooth Snakes. In Kars we found the lovely Hotel Güngören and after stuffing ourselves with Lahmacun and Döner we went of to bed.

1st of May 2015

On the menu for today was the Aras valley for vipers. In this beautiful habitat we searched for a long time in suitable habitat under suitable conditions but found nothing. Birds were plentiful though and above our heads several Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus), Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), Crag Martins (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) and Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) were soaring overhead. On a second search site we were more lucky and just a few meters from the car we spotted great looking habitat and within 10meters we found 3 big and beautiful Wagner's Vipers (Montivipera wagneri). Stunning! Overly happy we headed to another good looking slope and found  a small Transcaucasian Ratsnake (Zamenis hohenackeri) crawling around besides many calling Levant Water Frogs (Pelophylax cf. bedriagae). Back at the car we met some friendly military people who offered us tea and told us a great spot to see bears around Sarikamis. The place sounded great and we decided to change our plans a bit and try it out. We had a meal in Sarikamis, photographed the massive population of Green Toads just outside town and went to the dumpsite (which didn't look too different from the town). Not for long we saw a massive mammal next to the road, searching for food scraps. A Syrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos syriacus)! Sadly the animal was too shy and too quickly gone for pictures but to see this magnificent animal is the best imaginable closure of such a succesful day in the field.

2nd of May 2015

The weather forecast for the morning was still good so we first went a bit north of Kars to look for the remaining bits of steppe and for lizards. With the sun out it wasn't for long until we spotted the first Dwarf Lizards (Parvilacerta parva), Smooth Snake and Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata). West of Kars we tried our luck for Armenian Steppe Viper (Vipera eriwanensis) but the weather forecast changed faster than predicted and while the site itself looked great, there were vast patches of snow and with thick clouds rolling in we had zero change of finding this small viper species. Strolling through the ruined city of Ani was a better alternative to spend a rainy afternoon. The worst of the thunderstorm we sheltered in one of the abandoned monasteries together with several Red-billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) and Crag Martins. During a short sunny spell we saw a small snake crawling between the grass, a Dahl's Whip Snake (Platyceps najadum). Back at Kars the rain came pouring down and we took shelter in a Çay Salonu to drink a few cups before having another lovely dinner.

3rd of May 2015

First we searched at a good looking site near Digor but the strong cold wind made searching for snakes near impossible. We decided to head somewhere else and go deeper into one of the gorges in the hope to find some shelter from the wind. A good decision as not only did we had amazing scenery with steep cliffs and another ruined Armenian monastery, we also found several Kars Lizards (Darevskia nairensis) and a juvenile Armenian Viper (Montivipera raddei) shortly followed by the discovery of three adults coiled up in a small bush at the base of a large scree slope. Beautiful big snakes with a massive temper. Another one of these amazing herping moments! In the late afternoon we searched north of Igdir in the hope of finding Steppe Snake (Elaphe dione) which can be found in a small area of Turkey (Garzoni & Geniez 2004). No sign of the snake but we did find several incredibly shy Caspian Green Lizards (Lacerta strigata) and a few Marsh Frogs. The area looked promising though and we made plans to come back. In Igdir we found a great place to sleep in the Star Royal Hotel and had a great burger downtown.

4th of May 2015

Back to the promising snake spot north of Igdir where we saw a big reddish snake disappear into a rock wall. We missed it by an inch but had a clear view of what it was: Schmidt's Whip Snake (Dolichophis schmidti) and a stunning individual. When we came back a few minutes later the snake was there again but again vanished to soon into the wall and we had to do with an observation only, massively frustrating that is for sure! The weather forecast was again not too promising so we gave up the snake hunt and tried our luck for another one of our maingoals close to the Armenian border. Horvath's Sunwatcher (Phrynocephalus horvathi) is a species typical for semi-desert environments with clay soil and xerophitic vegetation, it has become critically endangered as much of its range has fallen prey to ever increasing agricultural development. Just before a thunderstorm hit the semi-desert we saw one individual running after we almost stepped on it, this small agamid relies mostly on camouflage as defence. Our first Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca ssp. armeniaca) was also found here. After the thunderstorm conditions were rather promising again and we headed towards the Ararat to a good looking slope with plenty of rocks and a few bushes in the otherwise desolate, overgrazed landscape. While flipping we quickly found many species such as Strauch's Racerunner (Eremias strauchi), Collared Dwarf Snake (Eirenis collaris), Dahl's Whip Snake, Worm Snake (Xerotyphlops vermicularis), Spur-thighed Tortoise and a Berberskink (Eumeces schneideri) that we saw sliding into a deep burrow when we flipped a rock. Another miss... On our way up the slope we had to dodge some angry shepherd dogs to get back to the car but made it safely back to Kars for hamburgers and baklava.

5th of May 2015

First the promising snake spot again but no luck. In the semi-desert south of Igdir we found quite a few nice species such as Green Toad, Strauch's Racerunner, Pleske's Racerunner (Eremias pleskei), Horvath's Sunwatcher, Caucasian Agama (Paralaudakia caucasia), Worm Snake, Dahl's Whip Snake and Collared Dwarf Snake. Also lots of Bee-eaters and Rollers (Coracias garrulus). At the slopes of the Ararat we were a bit less lucky as it got cold again and only found Caucasian Agama, Collared Dwarf Snake and Caspian Green Lizard. The weather continued to get worse and we headed further south to visit the Ishak Pasha Palace, the second largest palace of its kind in Turkey. A beautiful place which we had all to ourselves. We talked to the friendly Kurdish guide Adem and he said the situation in Syria also scares away people from this part of Turkey. We were invited by Adem for a meal and had a lovely dinner in the restaurant of his family. We went out for roadcruising in the evening but everywhere there was military presence and police about. We didn't really feel like getting into trouble again so we did not make it so late and had to settle for a few Green Toads.

6th of May 2015

In the morning we visited the slopes beneath Ishak Pasha Palace in the hope of finding the third and last species of Eremias occuring in Turkey. With the cold conditions however only a few hardy Caucasian Agamas were out besides a big Dice Snake basking next to the road. On the road to Lake Van we were hoping to do some explorative herping but we had hail and thunderstorms again so had to settle for a drab view on the Iranian border. Also the Muradiye Waterfalls must look nicer with some sun even tough they look still impressive. On a good looking meadow along the road we did a stop and quickly found lots of Levant Water Frogs and a handful of Snake-eyed Lacertids (Ophisops elegans ssp. centralanatoliae). Beautiful little lizards. The place looked promising for several amphibian species as well so we decided to come back here after dark. After checking in to Hotel Urartu in Van and a greasy Döner we went back and despite the cold wind we quickly found a single Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates syriacus) sitting next to the pond. Bliss! When we got back to the car rain started pouring down and we considered ourselves very lucky.

7th of May 2015

Of to Akdamar Island! We were full of enthusiasm about heading towards the island were Dotted Dwarf Snake (Eirenis punctatolineatus) is supposedly common and also grows bigger than on the mainland. Sounds good! We quickly found a charter to the island and only had to wait for 5-10 minutes. This turned out to be 1,5 hours which is as long as we spend on the island in the end. The island itself was also heavily restored, a beautiful monastery as its main attraction but around the Turks build a cafe, restrooms, paths, recreational areas and on top of that released rabbits so all the meadows were heavily overgrazed. Also guards were around everywhere to keep an close eye on anyone. We did find Snake-eyed Lacertids and a Spur-thighed Tortoise but no sign of the snakes. A pity. We did meet Anna and Marco (Trippicks) who have traveled all around Turkey and are just starting their trip around the world, great meeting you guys and we wish you all the best on your trip! A refreshing dip in the salty, soapy waters of Lake Van and we were good to go again in the direction of Tatvan and Bitlis. A little south of Bitlis we found a great looking stream and almost within minutes of getting out of the car we found two stunning living jewels in the stream, Strauch's Spotted Newt (Neurergus strauchii). What an amazingly beautiful animals! At night we came back but we soon were interrupted by villagers in a pickup truck. We quickly got back in the car, drove on to the main road, choose a side road to hide and managed to dodge them. Even finding Lemon-yellow Tree Frogs (Hyla savignyi) in the proces, after traveling for some time in this country we got the hang of it! In the town of Bitlis people were friendly and welcomed us to Kurdistan. Hotel Mermer proved a great place to spend the night.

8th of May 2015

A long drive ahead of us so we got up a bit earlier then usual. Along the way from Tatvan to Muş we saw some beautiful flooded meadows next to a big river. Perfect for stretching our legs and maybe finding a terrapin or two. We quickly saw many Levant Water Frogs and some incredibly shy Caspian Terrapins (Mauremys caspica) while a Montagu's harrier (Circus pygargus) was circling above our heads. A second stop in pristine Blunt-nosed Viper habitat we spotted along the road north of Erzurum did not deliver that species but instead several Dwarf Snakes (Eirenis modestus) were found, including one individual with a fantastic pattern. At the stunning Tortum waterfalls we made some crappy shots of Red-bellied Lizards (ssp. parvula). The evening we spend in Borcka in the Hotel Turistik so we could give the Caucasian Parsley frog another shot at night. Sadly again no luck besides finding many larvae of that species. Several Caucasian Salamanders were out and about and a few Clark's Lizards (Darevskia clarkorum) under rocks.

9th of May 2015

 With a not overly promising weather forecast we still decided to try our luck with the vipers. Arriving on the slope it already started drizzling plus we had a dog who didn't got a hint and decided to run around through the habitat and scare away any reptile that was out. Only an Eastern Slow Worm was found. Back in the car the rain got worse and we decided to drive on to the Sumela Monastery. The dense fog did not grant any spectacular views on the site but within the monastery the scenery was enchanting all the same. The "monastery above the clouds" was in the clouds today... In the aptly named Otel Paradise Lost we found a comfy room and nearby a tasty Dürüm before heading to bed.

10th of May 2015

 A ridiculously early flight back to Munich via Istanbul but this time no delays, lots of leg space and another tasty meal and we were back home before we knew it.

Epilogue

During our trip we drove over 3400km and saw many beautiful areas but also found that herping in this part of the world is rather hard. The lush green areas in the north are a bliss at first sight and may look pristine, a closer look however reveals that most slopes are used for either tea or hazelnut plantations and are rather monocultural. Besides the presence of vast plantations, small villages pop up everywhere, roads and dams are being constructed, mountainsides completely deforested and valleys are flooded. Also the local people seem especially wary of foreign visitors particularly if they show an interest for nature. Everywhere you feel observed, people stare blatantly and as soon as you enter a small town you see locals making a  phonecall and most often this means police. In the past foreigners came to collect snakes here so it is good that people are aware of this. On the other hand the villagers themselves most likely kill snakes on sight so it is rather hypocrite they "care" so much. Besides, they also create a state of paranoia as we encountered several times during our short stay in this area. Further south we didn't have any problems any more and people seemed to be as open and welcoming as we are used of Turkey. Here the people invite you for tea almost everywhere you set foot and also police or military just laugh when you explain your hobby - instead of seeing an immediate suspect of animal trafficking in you.

Further south the high plateaus around Kars and Ararat are exposed to another threat in the form of overgrazing. Most of these slopes have little vegetation and most bushes are cleared to make way for meadows. Only around rocky outcrops suitable habitat for reptiles persists and due to little vegetation erosion is visible everywhere.

In general, several spots we received from people visiting this area several years ago, are now turned into agricultural land or into dumpsites. Also I have never seen a more heavily littered place, everywhere along our route we could see massive dumpsites, oil spills flowing into rivers, steppes where every bush is decorated with plastic bags, lakes full with floating bottles etc.

As such we had difficulties getting around or finding suitable places to find our target species and it becomes clear nature is under severe pressure.

A rather negative closure of this report but don't get me wrong, we had a blast and many areas are still vast, unexplored and harbour a wealth of wildlife hardly equalled by most European countries.

For those who can't get enough, make sure to check out Lauras Picasaweb as well.

Species

Caucasian Salamander (Mertensiella caucasica)

Strauch's Spotted Newt (Neurergus strauchii)

Northern banded Newt (Ommatotriton ophryticus)

Caucasian Toad (Bufo verrucosissimus)

Green Toad (Bufotes viridis)

Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis)

Lemon-yellow Tree Frog (Hyla savignyi)

Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates syriacus)

Caucasian Parsley Frog (Pelodytes caucasicus) larvae

Levant Water Frog (Pelophylax cf. bedriagae)

Caucasian Brown Frog (Rana macrocnemis)

Caspian Terrapin (Mauremys caspica)

Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca ssp. armeniaca)

Caucasian Agama (Paralaudakia caucasia)

Horvath's Sunwatcher (Phrynocephalus horvathi)

Berber Skink (Eumeces schneideri)

Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica)

Clark's Lizard (Darevskia clarkorum)

Derjugin's Lizard (Darevskia derjugini)

Kars Lizard (Darevskia nairensis)

Red-bellied Lizard (Darevskia parvula)

Spiny-tailed Lizard (Darevskia rudis)

Uzzell's Lizard (Darevskia uzzelli)

Pleske's Racerunner (Eremias pleskei)

Strauch's Racerunner (Eremias strauchi)

Levant Green Lizard (Lacerta media)

Caspian Green Lizard (Lacerta strigata)

Snake-eyed Lacertid (Ophisops elegans ssp. centralanatoliae)

Dwarf Lizard (Parvilacerta parva)

Worm Snake (Xerotyphlops vermicularis)

Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca)

Schmidt's Whip Snake (Dolichophis schmidti)

Collared Dwarf Snake (Eirenis collaris)

Dwarf Snake (Eirenis modestus)

Grass Snake (Natrix natrix ssp. scutata)

Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)

Dahl's Whip Snake (Platyceps najadum)

Caucasian Ratsnake (Zamenis hohenackeri)

Wagner's Viper (Montivipera wagneri)

Armenian Viper (Montivipera raddei)

Caucasus Viper (Vipera kaznakovi)

Transcaucasian Nose-horned Viper (Vipera transcaucasiana)

 

Many thanks to Sergé Bogaerts, Borya De Las Heras, Michael Franzen, Ronald Laan (and the other guys from Klooiplek), Konrad Mebert, Joachim Nerz, Torsten Panner, Josef Schmidtler, Christoph Schneider and Mario Schweiger.