Caspian Region

Birding Hotspot Besh Barmaq

Mark Elliott
Ruddy Shelducks, Image: Elvin Məmmədsoy

Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Mark Elliott.



Heading north out of Azerbaijan’s ever-expanding capital, Baku, you drive along a strip of relatively flat coastline with hilly undulations slowly rising to the west. These become suddenly more pronounced at Besh Barmaq, an outcrop of rock rising abruptly through a steep grassy hill ridge.

The name means ‘five fingers,’ though seen from further north, it’s more of a giant thumb jutting forth from the steep hillside. The phallic form has given the summit a superstitious folk reputation as a place where those seeking improved fertility might find miraculous assistance in their pregnancy prayers.

The coastal contours are important for migrating birds, too, creating a flyway through which many species pass en route from their Siberian summers to warmer over-wintering areas further south. And for their return each spring.


This year, starting on September 1, a dedicated group of international ornithologists assembled in the shadow of Besh Barmaq to undertake one of the most comprehensive counts of this mighty migration ever attempted.


A hen harrier watches the watchers. Image: Elvin Məmmədsoy

It was planned to continue until the end of November, but unseasonably mild conditions meant that the count was extended until December 11.


By this date, the team had notched up a remarkable 1160 hours of observation over 101 days, counting over two million birds of some 271 species, 1.8 million of them reckoned to be in active migration.

The day I visited, things were pretty calm. A small flock of grey herons, a minor murmuration of starlings, and a constant trickle of rooks.

Indeed, starlings and rooks proved to be in such frequent passage that one of the team was on full-time rook duty. By the end of the season, 183,000 rooks and 720,000 starlings had been noted.


The day before my visit, things had been far busier, and they had counted a whopping 17,000 cormorants, including one single flock of 1800, followed by the season’s first whooper swan and a perfect V-formation of 140 cranes.


European SerinImage: Charles J. Sharp

Highlights of the season included a flock of 600 Black-winged Pratincoles circling the Besh Barmaq crag in late September and a group of 70 Steppe Eagles along the ridges in mid-October. A European Serin was sighted on November 24, and a Red-rumped Swallow the next day, only the third and sixth times, respectively, that such birds have been recorded in Azerbaijan.

Little Bustards at Besh Barmaq. Image: Christopher Stamp

The much-anticipated passage of Little Bustards (Tetrax tetrax) began on November 6, causing considerable excitement and rapid clicking on the thumb counters. That first day alone, a total estimated at over 11,500 was observed, with another 2400 or more on

November 7.

At times the bustards formed veritable clouds as they passed. Image: Christopher Stamp

Bemused by the ornithologists, shepherd boy Faiq looks on. He’s part of a semi-nomadic family who use the same scrubby area of foreshore as temporary pasture for their flocks as they move from the Caucasian foothill town of Adur to winter pastures around Hajiqabul.  

For much more insight into the count details, ornithologists should refer to the Birding Azerbaijan website, which has blogs, photos and updates. For complete statistics of every bird counted, head to Trektellen.

Though an undertaking of this magnitude does require a constant supply of tea, this samovar is used by the shepherd like Faiq in the area.