ON TRAILS UNKNOWN TO MAN...
The fauna of Turkmenistan is extremely colorful and diverse. In recent years, Turkmenistan has created almost ideal opportunities for conservation and multiplication of natural resources by registering and protecting all rare species of flora and fauna. Naturally, observing animals in their natural habitat is extremely fascinating. Yet, one needs to travel a lot, covering thousands of kilometers along Turkmenistan's expanses.
Birds are one of the most interesting objects to observe. One can hardly think of any group of animals that would arouse people's genuine interest and curiosity and serve as a source of inspiration for writers and artists. There are now about 9 thousand species of birds in the world, grouped in 28 orders. Turkmenistan's fauna accounts for 410 species of 18 orders. In the historical period, the study of the ornithological fauna of Turkmenistan has continued for more than 200 years.
It was already in ancient times that people got attracted to the bright coloring of birds and the harmony and beauty of "dressing" of even those birds whose feathering was not bright. Birds played an important role in the folklore and myths of many peoples of the world, including the Turkmen people. It is well known that birds were treated at symbols of divine essence, the spirit of heaven and sun, thunder and wind, fertility and plenty, freedom, inspiration and prophecy, the spirit of life itself. Turkmens' tradition of hunting with hunting birds has been widespread and carefully preserved since ancient times.
Sedentary birds inhabit permanent habitats, yet there is lack of food for them in winter, and they have to migrate from place to place or make daylong flights for several kilometers to feeding places. Migratory birds travel regularly, sometimes for tens of thousands kilometers. The territory of Turkmenistan presents an original geographical "crossroads" of migration routes. Suffice it to say that the number of wintering on the Turkmen coast of the Caspian Sea different species of ducks, coots, gulls, waders and other water birds alone amount from 100 to 300 thousand in different years. The protected areas along the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea are the best place to observe migratory birds.
These birds come unexpectedly, like a squall wind, and there is nothing more beautiful at this moment than a low flying flock. Flapping of thousands of wings and sharp guttural cackle of birds, along with the contrasting combination of white and red color of feathers create a surprisingly fantastic picture of the triumph and exultation of the perfect creatures of nature. However, not everyone can see this phenomenon. Pink flamingo is a cautious bird, and it does not allow people come anywhere near. One has to look out for them for more than one day to become better acquainted with these amazing feathered creatures. The probability of encountering flamingos is extremely high in the Khazar Reserve on the Turkmen coastline of the Eastern Caspian.
The birds spend a warm part of the year in Kazakhstan, hatching and growing their chicks. From September to May, they fly to Turkmenistan and roam along the 700-kilometer long route along the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, from the Kara-Bogaz Bay to the shoals of Esenguly. The number of their population during wintering ranges from five to fifteen thousand.
In the Khazar Reserve, flamingos live as large colonies on the shallows. They can survive even extreme environmental conditions along with a few other species of animals and endure the sharp falls in temperature. The specific redness of feathers of these birds depends on how much their bodies consume the carotenoid substance together with food. Young birds, as well as birds in captivity with insufficient carotenoids have white feathers. So, one can assume that the characteristic pink and scarlet color of flamingos is a sign of life at large.
Nature has endowed these birds with the perfect means for survival. A long neck and a strong beak facilitate their search of food, and thin long legs allow them to cover long distances in the shallows and shoals in search of food. A flamingo's beak is massive, hunchbacked, as if broken in half, with a wide and deep mandible and a narrow maxilla. Unlike most other birds, the movable part of the beak is not the lower but upper part. It is an excellent mechanism, a real "scoop" for obtaining the smallest crustaceans, which is the main food of flamingos.
Young chicks with short thick paws and not very long necks do not look like their parents at all. At the age of two weeks, a chick's beak begins to bend, like those of adult birds, and it starts looking for food on its own. Out-of-the-nest chicks, remaining for a while without parents, bunch up in large groups, frolic and swim in shallow water under the supervision of a few remaining "nannies".
Having gained strength and flying skills, young birds join the common flock. However, they will still differ in size and color from older brothers for quite a long time. Only in the third year of life, ex-chicks get the shape of real flamingos with the characteristic color of feathers.
The flamingo flocks usually spend time flying to certain parts of shallow water, where they feed and rest. All this time, they seem to be talking to each other, uttering deep-voice gaggle. They gaggle louder in the dark. Flamingos rest not only at night, but also during the day. Some birds sleep (normally in the center of the flock), while the other part feeds and keeps watch. Then, the birds change roles. They feed until late at night.
One can tirelessly admire for hours the majestic movements of birds along the shallows. You only has to stay invisible. If the slightest danger is detected, a "watchman" will immediately alarm the flock to take off. Flamingos take off with some difficulty. First, the bird runs in shallow water with wide strides, flapping its wings, and when its body has already risen above water the flamingo still seems making strides for a while. When it finally detaches from the water surface, the bird evenly flaps its wings and easily gains the high speed of flying. The flamingo's body stretches out, with its legs thrown back and its neck extended forward that provides excellent aerodynamics.
Watching it from the ground, a large flock looks like a wave of pink wind, easily and freely covering huge distances. This wave quickly disappears, leaving in the heart a feeling of light envy to this picture and slight depression in expectation of the miracle of another encounter with the beautiful.
A large territory lies on the southeastern edge of the Ustyurt plateau, which the Turkmens call Gaplankyr from time immemorial. It is translated from the Turkmen as the "habitat of cheetahs". Unfortunately, cheetahs are no longer there, but the memory of them has remained, and it gave the name to the Gaplankyr Reserve that was established in Dashoguz province in 1979.
The fauna of Gaplankyr is not much different from the fauna of the deserts of Central Asia. Some species of mammals, such as the Barchan cat, caracal, thin-hedge ground squirrel and others are similar to the fauna of the African Sahara. Gaplankyr is the northern boundary of the area of distribution of reptiles, such as cobra, carpet viper, shield-moss, many lizards and gray lizards known as sand crocodiles.
Sarykamysh Lake is the main habitat of the Reserve's living creatures. It rises before the eyes of travelers unexpectedly, like a miracle. An endlessly long road among the roaming dunes suddenly breaks off, and one immediately finds himself on the edge of water. A blue space with white crests of waves stretches to the horizon, as far as one can see. It seems that this sky with floating clouds reflects on the sand.
Life is in full swing around the lake and in the water. The Sarykamysh water splashes lazily, softly touching the coastal sand. White swans swim near the shore, and there are many large fish in the depths of the lake. A catfish weighing more than 300 kilograms is not a rare phenomenon. There are also carp, bream and sabrefish. The whitish ears of curious hares glimmer continually in the coastal thickets of saxaul. And surely, hares are followed by their eternal hunters - foxes and wolves. Slim gazelles come to drink water, yet salty. Mountain sheep come down from the ledges of Gaplankyr to the watering place. Small wild boars like to take mud baths in small gullies on the lake banks.
In spring and autumn, during migration, a great number of migratory waterfowl and land birds stop here for rest. Some of them, having chosen these fertile fish-rich places, refused to continue their journey and received a "residence permit" in Sarykamysh. Pink and curly pelicans settled in the lake exactly this way. They established their colonies on small islands. Real sea birds - cormorants - built thousands of nests close to the pelicans' settlements. They apparently took a wide lake surface for the expanse of the sea.
In the coastal zone, one can meet a bustard, the dream of any hunter. And in the sky, feathered predators patrol in search of prey. A golden eagle is considered a rarity anywhere in the world, but it is a common thing here. He has a company of fellow celestial birds of prey, such as white-tailed eagle, serpent eagle, long-legged buzzard, Egyptian vulture, saker falcon. At night, the mocking screech of an owl can be heard over the sleepy lake.
Autumn in the Amudarya Reserve is the time of serene tranquility, when plants and animals do not need to fight in a fierce competitive struggle, to escape from cold or heat. The world seems to have frozen in steady confidence of its own well-being, not burdening itself with the anxiety of the approaching winter.
The beauty of local nature is fascinating at any time of the year. An unknown master finely selects natural colors, and even some dullness of the winter landscape has its own subtle graphic charm. However, the riot of spring greens and the all-consuming yellow color of summer heat fade before the color of the autumnal Amudarya palette.
Amudarya in itself is an amazing phenomenon of nature. Confined within the existing conditionally constant channel, bounded by high clay banks, this river, like a capricious woman, constantly changes its mood and never repeats the outlines of its channels. As a result, new shoals and caves appear in new places every year. Fish that stay longer in a shallow puddle risk becoming cut off from large water and an easy prey for foxes and jackals.
Taking the right place in the thickets of reeds and gathering all patience, one can see how broods of wild boars or jackals slowly, if not lazily, come to the watering place. If you are lucky, you can also see beautiful deer. They always keep watchful and on alert. Hares are even more sensitive to the potential danger, as they have too many enemies in these places: wolves, foxes, jackals.
A chain of small traces on wet sand leads from the watering place to the thickets of the riparian forest. It looks like a hop-o'-my-thumb ran here with bare feet. A knowledgeable person will be pleased with the possible luck, as these are the traces of a porcupine. Observing extreme caution, one can admire this extremely cautious animal. Traces lead to a burrow, but it is best not to come very close. A porcupine's burrow can have up to ten emergency exits, and the owner of sharp spines will not necessarily use the same "door" twice.
Coloring of the feathered inhabitants of the Reserve adds bold tints to the overall picture. One can see a white arrow on the blue background. This is a wedge of goose that made a short stop here before setting off for a long journey to the south. Colorful pheasants do not need to go on a long journey, as they will be wintering here on the river. As for gray herons and black-tailed storks, they take advantage of the fine days and actively feed on the shallows to gain strength before the flight.
The wildlife of the Badkhyz Reserve is no less diverse. Speaking in unscientific terms, the crawling are represented by different kinds of lizards, monitor lizards, snakes, among which the most dangerous of the reptiles are a carpet viper, a Central Asian cobra and a labetina viper. The winged living there include black vulture, griffon, saker falcon, shahin falcon, larks, shrikes, crested hoopoes. The Earth's surface is the patrimony of various species of hedgehogs, ground squirrels, field mice, foxes, steppe cats, striped hyenas, wolves. The Reserve is home to wild boars, wild sheep, wild ram, gazelle, and, of course, koulan - the pride of the reserve, the pearl of the Badkhyz fauna.
Koulan is the only representative of the odd-toed ungulates preserved in their original form in northern Eurasia, the only surviving relative of wild donkeys and horses that once inhabited the vast open spaces of this continent. Thanks to the measures taken to preserve and increase the number of livestock, several thousand koulans now live in the Badkhyz Reserve.