One Day at Aras

December 6, 2016

I wake up with my phone’s alarm. We are staying in a cozy village house with other volunteers. It is almost sunrise, but still constellations can be distinguished at the sky. Usually, I wake up before the other volunteers to use bathroom before everyone else. 

While I am washing my face, other volunteers begin waking up. After I dress up to go out, I check batteries for walky-talkies, which are extremely crucial for our work in the field. To communicate with walky-talkies makes our lives easier. Then, I pack biscuits. Biscuits and coffee are also crucial for us to keep our energy levels high. Biscuits are important! Within 15 minutes we are all ready to go to the station.  In the meantime, the station’s scientific coordinator Emrah (Coban) arrives the station before us to open up the station. If it’s cold, Emrah also lights the stove and boils the water for coffee.

 We wear our Wellington boots before leaving home. Berkay from the next door joins us. Berkay is 18 years old and he lives in this village. For the last 7 years he has been volunteering for the project. He is grown up as a ornithologist. We walk to the station, which is 1-2 km far from the house. Every day we spend up to 16 hours at the ringing station. While walking you can hear birds chirping. We see Tekelti Mountain across the river Aras. If the sky is clear, we can see Mountain Ararat too. 
After first net controls we arrive at station. Usually Berkay control net number 12, which is the farthermost net. There are even rumours about this particular net of being inside Armenian lands. Then I check nets number 1 - 8. Ringer and other volunteers walk directly to the station to check the reaming nets. To collect birds from nets we have special cloth bags with us. 

After firs controls we meet at the station. We leave bird-bags to the station according to net numbers to the hangers next to the ringer’s table. To remember net numbers is extremely crucial for registrations. Gradually, you get used to remember net numbers. 
Now it’s time for ringer to register and ring the birds we have collected from the nets. Usually, one of the volunteers help ringer to fill in the database. Ringers define the species, sub species etc. And apply rings to the bird’s leg. Rings have 2 letters and 5 numbers. Rings are kind of birds’ identification cards. Ringers also measure wings and tail, identify their age, gender and fat score. After applying rings and recording the measurements we release birds. Thanks to our experienced ringers application of rings to a bird takes around 50 second. Including the collecting from nets and measurements birds’ release take only 10-15 minutes. 

 Collecting birds from nets is an interesting process. Birds easily get stressed while they at our hands. In this regard, we need to fast to complete the process. We need time to get use to handle birds. Usually, one of the more experienced volunteer guide newcomers. In case of emergency, we call experienced team members via walky-talky. If you don’t collect the bird from the nets in 3 minutes, you need to call for help. Otherwise, bird might get stressed. As we don’t want to harm birds or cut nets we should follow certain teamwork rules. The nets are expensive, a 12 meters long net costs 100 euro, and we particularly refrain from cutting nets to collect birds.  
After ringing and registration done, we have around half an hour left until the next shift. We eat biscuits and drink coffee while sunrises slowly. We have at least 2-3 hour to our actual breakfast!

The organisation at the station is determined according to the hourly shifts. We keep checking the clock in order not to miss shifts. We usually eat our breakfast after 10.00 shift. After 9.00 shift one of the volunteers prepares the breakfast, then after 10.00 shift we start eating breakfast. The only condition to start breakfast is to ring, register and release all the birds which were collected from the nets at 10.00 shift. We all wait ringer and registering volunteer for breakfast. We call this “station spirit” or “Aras spirit.” We do everything together as a team. 

Let me tell you about our legendary Aras breakfast. I can write pages about our breakfast as this is my personal favourite meal of the day. It is not an exaggeration to call Aras breakfast legendary. Both preparation and consumption of the breakfast is the most enjoyable moments of the station. As it is the only proper meal we eat at the station, breakfast has a collective spirit. As famous Turkish poet Cemal Sureya said “breakfast brings happiness” After the breakfast, two volunteers clean the table and wash the dishes, others go to check nets. 

After breakfast time, days pass on by checking nets, ringing birds and filling in registry database. If we have many birds to ring, the shifts might be tiring, since we don’t have enough time to rest between shifts. We don’t eat lunch since a meal takes 2-3 hours during the shifts. Instead, we prefer to dedicate our time for birds.
As volunteers our priority is “birds” As the station is also a training centre, we spend our spare time to enrich our knowledge about environment, birds and their habitat at Aras. We are expected to contribute the continuation of scientific studies at the station. At the same time we would like to gain experience and spend good time with a group of fantastic volunteers. Thus, we prefer to spend our time and energy to serve those purposes instead of preparing lunch. When we feel hungry, we eat fruit, biscuits and sometime homemade bread and butter that Berkay’s mother treat us. 
At Aras we usually spend our 24 hours with people we never met. Think about it, even with your closest friends and family you rarely spend 24 hours. That’s why collective culture is extremely important for us. Such a collective life help you to develop your personal development too. Furthermore, in such a natural environment, when you start feel hungry, tired or sleepy you tend to remove your social masks you are normally wearing in your routine lives. 

If the weather is rainy or hot we start checking nets in every half an hour to protect birds from wet and from heatwave. If rain does not stop in a few hours, we close the nets and go home until rain stops. We call such compulsory breaks as “vaccination break.” 
Normally, after noon the number of birds gets less and less. So our afternoon shifts usually takes shorter. This give us time to take short naps, read our books or bird watching. Sometimes we take walks through the Aras River. 
We start the day with polar jackets. After sunrise we continue our day with t-shirts. During spring time particularly late afternoons we wear our polar jackets again. This time of the day also time for mosquitoes to start their attacks too. In my opinion, they are nor just mosquitos but they are monsters. They may bite you even on your jeans. They are very annoying and make you crazy. Thus, I strongly recommend you to bring anti-mosquito sprays. As nets are placed on mud and swamp it is natural to expose to mosquitos. 
Evening hours are the times that birds are getting more and more active. Sometimes, flocks of birds get caught on the nets. Sometimes hundreds of swallows get caught on nets. In those cases, we collect each one them and ring them. This means our working day prolongs at least two more hours. Personally, the biggest swallow storm I have ever experienced was the time we collected 659 swallows from the nets. As you may guess we stayed overnight to ring them until sunrise. 
After sunset, we do our last controls. As all the species are not active during the night, they are safe overnight. Following the last control, we head to the home. On our way home, we find fantastic opportunity for stargazing since we don’t have light pollution over here. To be able to see milkyway and other constellations always give me goosebumps. 

We have shifts for everything. Every dinner is cooked by one of the volunteers. Volunteer who are responsible from cooking dinner leaves station 2 hours before the last shift. When we are all done with the shifts, we find dinner on the table waiting for us. After dinner we have also shifts for washing dishes. 
 All the chores at the station and at home are done as a collective effort. Of course, we can make lists for meals and washing dishes. But, in essence everybody who join us as volunteer are very eager to participate each one of chores. So, the contributions embodies in a natural manner. To be honest, as every other teamwork, in our team we have eager and less eager participants. In some cases, the efforts of eager participants can be exploited. That’s why, we always ask for help from each other, not just at the station but also at home. In case of disagreements, team leaders involve and resolve the disagreements by making lists, 
After dinner, volunteers take their time to relax; they take shower, call their homes, and talk to each other or just rest. If we have clear sky, we prefer to go back to station for stargazing. When I first come to station as volunteer, I did not understand the excitement of our ringer, Sedat Inak, for stargazing. During my stay, he show me each one of the constellations and told us their stories. I was shocked at that time. But gradually, I myself develop an interest for stargazing. So, despite the long days, we always find energy for stargazing whenever we have clear skies over the Aras. I forget to mention that, not just only nights but during the daytime, Aras offers fantastic opportunities for cloud gazing too. You will be overjoyed in Aras!

I would like to remind seasonal differences in our experience in Aras. During spring and fall, we find all kinds of colours on birds since it is the seasons for reproduction. The most difficult part of those seasons is longer and more tiresome days. Naturally, dinner routine is different since our shifts get longer during spring and summer. We prepare dinner and eat at the station around 17.00.  The advantage of fall shifts is shorter days, thus they are less tiresome. We have more energy to take walks around delicious apple gardens of Igdir. To summarise, it has been 5 years since I left my professional job and join the volunteer’s team of Aras. Here, I can only give a brief account of our experience at Aras. I don’t claim that this is a full account of what we are doing here. To be precise, what we are doing here to make our environment a better place to live. As volunteers we are dedicated to contribute this goal. The feeling of fulfilment and satisfaction makes our volunteering experience worths doing. If you wish to enjoy yourself and at the same time you wish to feel your contribution for a good cause, Aras is the place for you. 


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