Wednesday, 14 February 2018

My Encounters with Turkish Reptiles and Amphibians

I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that reptiles and amphibians were my favourite animals. Wherever I go, I try to find them, catch them, and photograph them. (I used to keep them as pets too, but gave up after realising how distressing it was for the animals themselves.) 'Field herping', as enthusiasts call it, is a great hobby, full of discoveries and wonder.

I register all herptile photos I take at the ADAMEROS - The The Amphibian and Reptile Monitoring & Photography Society of Turkey. There they are catalogued with the associated date, habitat, location and altitude data; an ever-growing, cross-indexed, multi-authored volume of field observations.

I recently decided to mirror my ADAMEROS herptile gallery on this blog, not just for posterity, but also to add further personal notes and context. I think that each reptilian encounter also has a neat story behind it. I'll keep updating this page often, so keep checking back... Without further adieu and in no particular order, here we go - down memory lane with my encounters with Turkish reptiles and amphibians!


Worm snake
Xerotyphlops vermicularis
Tekirova - ANTALYA / TURKEY
26.4.2016 | Altitude: 5 m.

I saw this guy on a trekking trip, under a stone near some Eucalyptus trees. Blindsnakes are completely harmless -  most people don't even register them as serpents, but think them to be big "worms." Without limbs, tails, ears and even eyes, they are among the most minimal of all backboned animals.


Rock agama
Stellagama stellio
Şirince - IZMIR / TURKEY
24.4.2013 | Altitude: 350 m.

My wife and I saw this agama on a countryside walk near Şirince, a touristic destination famous for its pioneering boutique hotels and imitation wine. It was perched on a garden wall, surveying its dominions like a lordly prince. Rock agamas are very common in Southwestern Turkey. I thought them to be 'giant iguanas' when I saw my first agama as a child. I spent a considerable part of my childhood vacations trying to catch them - but these guys are extremely alert, fast, and as I learnt in a painful lesson - they will bite if you succeed in grasping them.


Rock agama
Stellagama stellio
Salamis - NORTH CYPRUS
23.5.2015 | Altitude: 6 m.

Another agama, of a different colour, from Cyprus. Mediterranean agamas are quite varied in their colours. There are grey agamas, bluish-headed ones, dark ones... I couldn't figure out if this whitish variety was endemic to Cyprus; or if its colour was a trait brought about by age and gender. It was quite big, and looked fat and well-fed.


Balkan wall lizard
Podarcis tauricus
Tuzla - ISTANBUL / TURKEY
12.9.2006 | Altitude: 19 m.

These lizards were very common on the meadows around my old high school. I frequently caught them, and kept them as pets before releasing them back to nature at the end of the semester. I photographed this vibrantly-coloured male in my terrarium - one of my first experiments with animal photography. It was a joy to watch this lizard prowl around its enclosure, and eat the small insects I fed it every now and then.


Italian wall lizard
Podarcis siculus
Üsküdar - ISTANBUL / TURKEY
15.6.2015 | Altitude: 40 m.

Italian wall lizards are urban relatives of the meadow-dwelling Balkan lizards you saw above. Aside from Italy, they are present in the vicinity of Istanbul, but not in the surrounding countryside - which leads to the conclusion that they were introduced to the city from central Italy sometime in the past. They are not scared of people, and the males, such as this guy, are attractive customers with their black-and-green patterns.


Italian wall lizard
Podarcis siculus
Bağlarbaşı - ISTANBUL / TURKEY
29.8.2011 | Altitude: 80 m.

Another Italian wall lizard, a female or an immature male, judging from its muted colours and smallish head. I saw this guy on an old Armenian Cemetery - the tombstone it was resting on was more than two centuries old.


Phoenician lizard
Phoenicolacerta laevis
Köyceğiz - MUĞLA / TURKEY
13.6.2016 | Altitude: 8 m.

A completely different lacertid - the Phoenician lizard is one of the dozen-or-so small lizards native to Turkey. The classification of these overlapping, similar "species" keeps changing every few years. I saw this variety only in Köyceğiz, in Southern Turkey, in a grove of endangered sweetgum trees, Liquidambar sp. The males had very bright colours. The biggest "alpha" males, like this one, had big bluish heads, striking ocellated patterns and fiery undersides.


Phoenician lizard
Phoenicolacerta laevis
Köyceğiz - MUĞLA / TURKEY
13.6.2016 | Altitude: 3 m.

Two more Phoenician lizards from the same excursion in Köyceğiz. The brown one was the female, and she did not seem terribly impressed by the low-contrast, gray-and-yellow "beta" male that kept trying to mate with her.


Levantine marsh frog
Pelophylax bedriagae
Tekirova - ANTALYA / TURKEY
27.4.2016 | Altitude: 30 m.

I saw this marsh frog when I was about to get lost on a trekking excursion. (Long story...) These guys are one of the eight-odd species of Ranid water frogs native to Turkey. They occur in almost every pond, river or open-air sewer, especially in spring; but their numbers seem to be decreasing in recent decades. This guy was sitting in a puddle of water that had accumulated in a tyre track on a muddy road. It kept staring at me with the immobile, idiot/savant glance only frogs can wield.


Snake-eyed lizard
Ophisops elegans
Rizokarpaso (Dipkarpaz) - NORTH CYPRUS
24.4.2015 | Altitude: 160 m.

A distinct lizard among all other Turkish lacertids is the snake-eyed lizard; immediately noticeable with its short, "gracile" face and its lidless eyes. Well, their eyes aren't actually lidless; instead the eyelid has become transparent and fused in a shut position in a macabre twist of evolution. This configuration makes the animals' lives easier as they burrow underground. I saw this guy basking near an old school in North Cyprus.


Snake-eyed lizard
Ophisops elegans
Seyitören - ESKİŞEHİR / TURKEY
8.5.2017 | Altitude: 800 m.

The snake-eyed lizard ranges far and wide across Eurasia. I saw this colourful male in mainland Anatolia - on a field trip outside the city of Eskişehir. A local university had invited me to give a talk on my artwork; and I had spent a wonderful day, surrounded by young fans and admirers. I decided to crown the experience by hiring a car and driving around the surrounding countryside, looking for places to explore. The weather wasn't very warm - yet these lizards were still out and scuttling about, looking for insects to eat.


Kotschy's gecko
Mediodactylus kotschyi
Bağlarbaşı - ISTANBUL / TURKEY
9.6.2010 | Altitude: 120 m.

Geckos have a special place in my heart among Turkey's herpetofauna. Kotschy's geckos are very easy to identify with their un-gecko-like feet, which lack the characteristic adhesive pads. Instead, they have long and kinky fingers that enable them to grip irregularities on walls. I saw this guy just outside my family home in Istanbul.


Kotschy's gecko
Mediodactylus kotschyi
Mt. Tahtalı - ANTALYA / TURKEY
15.5.2015 | Altitude: 800 m.

Another Kotschy's gecko, from Antalya. This youngster posed like a miniature dragon.


Kotschy's gecko
Mediodactylus kotschyi
Göynük - ANTALYA / TURKEY
25.4.2016 | Altitude: 60 m.

This particular gecko I encountered while trekking was posing upside-down on a plant stem, apparently trying to disguise itself. I'd never seen kinky-toed geckos pose this way... Its behaviour intrigued me so much that I wrote a short scientific note about it - and voila - my observation was published in a herpetology journal! :) A small step for herpetology, a giant leap for me...


Striped terrapin
Mauremys rivulata
Köyceğiz - MUĞLA / TURKEY
13.6.2016 | Altitude: 2 m.

Turtles and terrapins are frequently overlooked as one searches for lizards and snakes. I saw this striped terrapin in Köyceğiz, in the waterside grove I'd seen the Phoenician wall lizards mentioned above. It quickly slid into a nearby pond and disappeared.


Eastern Montpelier snake
Malpolon insignitus
Sarayören - ESKİŞEHİR / TURKEY
8.5.2017 | Altitude: 800 m.

Snakes are enchanting creatures. I rarely get to see them, even though they are actually quite common outdoors. I saw this Montpelier snake during my field herping excursion near Eskişehir, while driving to a hill I wanted to climb. I immediately stopped the car and jumped out, camera in hand. The snake bolted after I took this picture. I instinctively ran after it - and after ten metres, it suddenly turned around with a hiss, and began chasing me instead. It was an thrilling adventure, but there was no real risk - the Montpelier snake, while mildly poisonous, was harmless. Much of its threatening behaviour was a bluff.


Levantine viper
Macrovipera lebetina
Salamis - NORTH CYPRUS
23.4.2015 | Altitude: 6 m.

There are plenty of snakes around Anatolia, but only a few of them are dangerous. This Levantine viper was the only "risky" snake I encountered so far. My wife an I were touring the ruins of Salamis - a lost Greek city in North Cyprus. Suddenly there was a rustling in the grass. I was expecting a turtle, or a cat... but out came this gigantic, (1.2m. long?) fat viper, hissing loudly.

My wife, already a little afraid of snakes, began hyperventilating and froze in fear. She looked at a nearby gravel pit. "I'm... going to jump in that pit now!" she said, her decision-making abilities dulled in the panic of the moment. I told her to stay still, while with trembling hands, I whipped out my camera and started taking pictures. I walked closer... My wife begged me not to get near the snake. Nonsense, I was going to have my viper photographs, no matter what... I snapped this shot - and a few seconds later, the viper stormed away like an earth-bound thunderbolt.

We were both shaken by the encounter - and I still tease my wife about "jumping into the gravel pit". She was also left with a misplaced fear that all and any patches of tall grass were home to hordes of murderous serpents, all out to bite and envenomate her - a delusion which only passed after she bought puncture-proof trekking boots.

This funny memory aside, Levantine vipers seem actually quite reluctant to bite people, even when handled. This has given rise to the bizarre preference for these dangerous snakes among "snake men" and "serpent handlers" across Anatolia and the Middle East.

Yazidi snake-handler, posing with Macrovipera lebetina, Lalesh, Iraq. 
Source: Ezidiler, Kara Kitap Kara Talih [The Yazidis, Black Book, Black Fate] by Ahmet Gökçen and Şaner Şen. (2014)

The funny thing is, the same men who ignorantly fondle venomous vipers are scared to death of fast, alert, aggressive but harmless snakes that live in the region, such as the Montpelier snake shown above...


Turkish gecko
Hemidactylus turcicus
Üsküdar - ISTANBUL / TURKEY
9.8.2011 | Altitude: 120 m.

One of the most common species in Turkey, if not the commonest, is the Mediterranean house gecko, or the Turkish gecko. This one was photographed in Istanbul, but these geckos are much more common around Turkey's southern coasts. They are among the most widely-distributed geckos in Eurasia, and have been introduced to numerous other places as a result of human activity. Note the tiny, reddish mite on the right toe of this guy.


Turkish gecko
Hemidactylus turcicus
Kuzguncuk - ISTANBUL / TURKEY
6.8.2013 | Altitude: 5 m.

One is never far from Turkish geckos during the warmer nights of the year. In summers, I admired them as small, quirky "nocturnal companions" one could easily find when bored with the drudgery of people and the banal rituals of social life.


Modest snake
Eirenis modestus
Göynük - ANTALYA / TURKEY
25.4.2016 | Altitude: 100 m.

Believe it or not, there are dwarf snakes, which never grow much larger than a mid-sized lizard, and feed mostly on insects... mostly. I saw one of them - the aptly named modest snake, when trekking near Antalya one fine spring day. There are several related species of Eirenis snakes in Anatolia.This is one of the few serpents one can just catch without worrying about getting bitten.


Smooth snake
Coronella austriaca
Doğancılar - ANKARA / TURKEY
9.9.2004 | Altitude: 1098 m.

Ah, he is a feisty little one! This is one of the oldest photographs in my herpetology collection. I'd taken it on a wild, spur-of-the-moment road trip from Istanbul to Ankara with my friend Omer - back in our carefree college years.

On the road from Ankara to Istanbul, by a small village named Doğancılar, there is an unusual hill named Çamlıtepe (Pine hill) - conical and crowned with ancient-looking stone pines, Pinus pinea. The entire landscape is a barren plateau - save for this one hill and its holdout of age-old trees.

I dared Omer to stop the car and climb the hill when we were driving past it. We parked the car by the side of the highway, climbed over the roadside fence, and there we were. On the way up, I lifted a small stone, and out came this aggressive-looking snake. Wow! Its triangular head and zig-zag patterns, its confidence and aggressive behaviour convinced Omer and I that we were face-to-face with a dangerous viper...


...the snake made several lunging attempts to bite, and we left it well alone. We drove to Ankara, exhilarated after our climb to Çamlıtepe. Once there, I tried to impress girls with the story of our encounter with the "viper". I was a 'slim customer' those days...

Years passed. Omer became a successful urban consultant. I became... something else. When looking back at our old pictures, I realised that the "viper" was no viper at all - we had been clearly and thoroughly duped, in the most basic, mammalian fashion possible.

Instead of a viper, the snake was a harmless smooth snake - a master imitator and a drama queen whose hissy antics led many predators believe it was a dangerous viper. Well played - it had me and Omer fooled for over a decade.



Ocellated skink
Chalcides ocellatus
Galateia (Mehmetçik) - NORTH CYPRUS
22.4.2015 | Altitude: 40 m.

The ocellated skinks, with their smooth and psychedelically-patterned skins, are some of the neater lizards in Anatolia. They are also notoriously hard to find. I saw this one in nearby North Cyprus, when touring various towns with my wife. We visited Galatea (Mehmetçik), a Turkish Cypriot village where my mother-in-law was born. It was spring, and after visiting the village we drove to a nearby pasture to take a walk. I found the skink under a stone, and caught it after a few minutes of fumbling and squirming through moist grass and mud. I held it in my hand for a while and the animal relaxed... I then placed it on a rock and took this photograph.


Green toad
Bufotes (=Pseudepidalea) variabilis
Üsküdar - ISTANBUL / TURKEY
4.9.2007 | Altitude: 100 m.

The thin, reverberating calls of green toads brought joy to our family in summer nights when I was growing up. They came out every year to breed in a decorative pond near our home in Istanbul. By the mid 2010s, however, new construction projects, urban pressure and an 'improved' water-filtration system on the pond, extinguished the local population. The nights fell silent and summers became duller. This was one of my last photographs of an adult, taken near the doorstep of our apartment building.


Green toad
Bufotes (=Pseudepidalea) variabilis
Üsküdar - ISTANBUL / TURKEY
26.8.2010 | Altitude: 100 m.

As the green toads grew scarce, I began collecting their eggs and raised them from tadpoles to the hatchling stage. I then released the hatchlings to gardens around our house, hoping they'd live on. I tried my best, but I guess I was unsuccessful. This was one of the finer hatchlings I raised during those years. His name was "Pilby".


Anatolian worm lizard
Blanus strauchi
Gümüşlük - MUĞLA / TURKEY
22.5.2017 | Altitude: 220 m.

One can unearth a few things stranger than the blind, snake-like worm lizards when flipping stones across Turkey. These guys are neither proper snakes, nor lizards, but members of a unique lineage of superficially snake-like reptiles.They moved like earthworms or a gigantic caterpillars, shuffling back and forth inside their loose, scaly skins. Their heads and tails look alike - and that was why the ancients had named them Amphisbaenas - "double-ended serpents." I think I'd caught this couple in an amorous moment!


Pelasgian rock lizard
Anatololacerta pelasgiana
Kumluca/Çıralı - ANTALYA / TURKEY
15.5.2015 | Altitude: 5 m.

We are back to lacertid lizards. As I showed you before, different species of lacertids inhabit different areas in Turkey. Southwestern Anatolia is home to these Pelasgian rock lizards. I saw this gal near the ruins of Olympos - a popular and enchanting getaway destination - basking on the walls of a thousand-year-old ruin. It did not budge at all as I approached to an arm's length of her, and snapped this photograph. Judging from her fat abdomen, she was also possibly pregnant.


Pelasgian rock lizard
Anatololacerta pelasgiana
Göynük - ANTALYA / TURKEY
25.4.2016 | Altitude: 65 m.

Unlike their drab female counterparts, male Pelasgian rock lizards are gaudily coloured in electric bluish-white spots, stripes, and red throat pouches. I saw this guy in another excursion, more than three years after the trip in which I spotted the female above. It quickly rustled away into the undergrowth - gone like a colourful hallucination.


Schreiber's fringe-toed lizard
Acanthodactylus schreiberi
Salamis - NORTH CYPRUS
23.4.2015 | Altitude: 6 m.

We're back in North Cyprus again, with the extraordinary fringe-toed lizard. These guys live in hot, sandy environments, and their long toes have special adaptations to run rapidly over loose substrates. We observed a large colony of them in the ancient, seaside ruins of Salamis. I kept encountering them every few metres - and they weren't afraid of people. We saw the large Macrovipera viper I'd mentioned above in the same place - I think the snake was out to hunt these guys.


Budak's juniper skink
Ablepharus budaki
Tekirova - ANTALYA / TURKEY
26.4.2016 | Altitude: 5 m.

Juniper skinks resemble tiny snakes with barely-noticeable limbs. In Turkey, they are quite common in pastureland and hillsides. They are always a joy to catch, watch and photograph. This one was from an excursion around Antalya. Notice how perfectly-formed its limbs were, despite being so small. This is why I called these animals "snakes in the making." It was easy to see how, in a few million years, the limbs might completely disappear.

When browsing for food, juniper skinks use their limbs for a slow, foraging style of locomotion. But when threatened, they fold them towards their bodies and flee like tiny, writhing snakes. Like snakes, they have no moveable eyelids, possibly in order to protect their eyes from debris as they burrow.


Snake-eyed skink
Ablepharus kitaibellii
Kuruçeşme - ISTANBUL / TURKEY
7.10.2017 | Altitude: 63 m.

Recent research has revealed Turkey's juniper skinks to be members of a species complex, rather than one monolithic species. The animals in Southern Turkey are classified as Ablepharus budaki, while northern animals are either A. kitaibellii or A. chernovi. I found this guy while walking in an old Armenian cemetery in the European part of Istanbul. It looked like a tiny bronze dragon... Istanbul's juniper skinks seemed thicker, darker and burlier than those in the warmer south. This guy, however, did not seem to know anything about recent debates on its species affinity. We left it alone and walked down to the Bosphorus shore, towards new adventures...


Friday, 5 January 2018

An Aviary of the Heart: The Outsider Art of Nihat Taş



In December 2017, I was walking down a street in Istanbul's Tophane district when I passed by a small store with eye-catching paintings of birds on its door. This area was a semi-gentrified neighbourhood of artsy (and inconsequential) design stores, art studios and so on, so I almost gave it a pass. But something in the paintings forced me to turn back, and knock on the door.


The store, it turned out, wasn't just another overpriced hipsters' den; but the decades-old abode of Nihat Taş, eccentric master carpenter and unacknowledged outsider artist. There he sat, making furniture and repairing others for the residents of the area for more than twenty years.



Mr. Taş's beautiful and talented niece Remziye also dropped by occasionally to help him in his daily tasks. Freshly liberated from the drudgery of corporate life, she also used his workshop as a studio space to work on her own furniture projects.


In the last few years, impelled by a personal tribulation, Mr. Taş had started painting flocks of birds on pieces of wood and leftover furniture material in his workshop. He even used his carpenter's skills to make the hanging fixtures for individual works, crafting them out of bits of discarded metal, parts of broken locks and keys, nails, whatever that was at hand. He called his creations, 'birds of my heart'.

Even with the limited references he used from a couple of old birdwatchers' guides he had found in a second-hand bookseller, Mr. Taş's creations were unique and spellbinding masterpieces of outsider art - comparable to the globally-known savant geniuses such as Gregory Blackstock, Miroco MachikoBill Traylor and Lee Goldie.


I was transfixed. The situation was almost too good to be true, and I wondered how on Earth had no-one discovered this oasis of creation before I'd stumbled into it. Oh wait - perhaps it was because the modern Turkish concept of high-art was a grey, soulless cargo cult of 'conceptual' pap?

Mr. Taş and I sat and spoke for a few hours that day. We instantly clicked over our common hatred of snobbish contemporary art, and other similar opinions about life, love and labour.



I had to document these paintings, and introduce them to the world somehow. The very next day I borrowed a tripod, two white cardboard sheets and two mobile lights and visited Mr. Taş's workshop to photograph each and every one of his avian creations. Remziye was also there. The three of us had lunch; beans, meat and rice, and then I busied myself with digitising the entire body of Mr. Taş's work while him and Remziye worked on their own tasks.

It was an extremely pleasant day, and you can see the entirety of Nihat Taş's oeuvre below. (But I'm sure he'll make more in the future).

UPDATE: You can now download a .pdf version of Nihat Taş's works through this link.
You can contact me for a print-resolution version of the file.


***

The ten pieces below are his earliest works, slightly more primal in form and complexity.











After these comes the main body of Mr Taş's work, a spectacular parade of iridescent peasants, crows, sparrows, woodpeckers and countless other birds... Enjoy!
























































































Finally, and crucially, Mr. Taş had a stash of "spirit paintings" about his pivotal life experiences. These precious few works are keys to the enigma of his birds - and a clue to how his creative explosion came about...





***

This, then was the work of Nihat Taş, Istanbul's extraordinary outsider artist. These paintings certainly need more recognition in the wider world - let alone the cultural dead-end-steet that is Turkey. If you are interested in these artworks, please get in touch with me through c.m.kosemen@gmail.com, and I can connect you with Mr. Taş, or his niece Remziye, who acts as his assistant.

UPDATE: You can now download a .pdf version of Nihat Taş's works through this link.
You can contact me for a print-resolution version of the file.