Gorgan Bay is a large, shallow inlet (23,800 ha) at the extreme south-east corner of the Caspian Sea, north and east of the town of Behshahr, almost totally cut off from the open sea by the Miankaleh Peninsula (24,200 ha), which is 60 km long and averages c.2 km wide. It is low and sandy with a chain of dunes 50 m wide paralleling the Caspian Sea coast. Gorgan Bay is brackish and receives freshwater inflow from a number of small rivers and streams rising on the humid north slope of the Alborz Mountains to the south. Some freshwater marshes occur at the west end of the bay, where inflow is greatest. The rise in the level of the Caspian during the 1980s has resulted in a marked increase in the level of Gorgan Bay and re-flooding of all those bare flats at the west end of the bay which had been exposed by previous falling sea-levels. On the seaward side of the peninsula, the sandy beach has virtually disappeared and no longer provides easy vehicular access to the fishing village of Ashuradeh at the eastern tip of the peninsula. Most of the peninsula is covered with herbs and grasses, and the western half also supports scrub of scattered Punica, Crataegus, Rhamnus and Rubus. There are a few large Salix planted around some of the houses. Much of the shoreline of the bay is fringed with a broad belt of Juncus and there are some large areas of Salicornia flats. The extensive seasonally flooded marshes at the west end of the bay are dominated by Carex with clumps of Juncus and a large stand of Tamarix which spread greatly as water levels fell during the early 1970s but has since started to die back as the Caspian has risen again. Much of the peninsula is heavily grazed by sheep, goats and water buffalo.
See boxes for key species. Miankaleh Wildlife Refuge is undoubtedly one of the finest bird reserves in the Palearctic. At least 288 species have been recorded, including 15 species currently listed in the IUCN Red Data Book of Threatened Animals. Of the 126 species of waterfowl which have occurred, no less than 63 have been present in internationally significant numbers. The reserve is extremely important throughout the year, supporting perhaps 250,000 waterfowl in winter and large colonies of herons, egrets, pratincoles and terns in summer. It also serves as a major staging area for migrant water- and landbirds in spring and autumn, and is the most important staging area for many species of shorebirds in the South Caspian region. The reserve is especially noted for its large wintering populations of grebes, Pelecanus crispus, Phalacrocorax carbo, herons, Phoenicopterus ruber, swans, geese, surface-feeding and diving ducks, raptors (Haliaeetus albicilla, harriers, eagles and falcons), shorebirds and gulls, and for its breeding colonies of herons and egrets, Glareola pratincola and Sterna albifrons. A wide variety of landbirds occurs on passage, and large numbers of larks, thrushes, finches and buntings remain to winter. Notable species recorded include Podiceps grisegena, Cygnus cygnus, Mergus serrator, Mergellus albellus, Aquila clanga, Pandion haliaetus (breeds), Charadrius asiaticus, Larus ichthyaetus, Sterna caspia, Caprimulgus aegyptius, Melanocorypha leucoptera, Acrocephalus agricola, Phylloscopus trochiloides nitidus (common passage migrant), Remiz pendulinus and Sturnus roseus.
The 1.8 m rise in the level of the Caspian since 1978 has had a profound influence on waterfowl populations in the marshes at the west end of Gorgan Bay, which are now permanently flooded. These marshes formerly held 3,000-10,000 Anser anser, 4,000-5,000 A. erythropus and huge numbers of surface-feeding ducks. Large numbers of waterfowl continue to winter in the marshes, but now the great majority are Fulica atra, which was relatively uncommon in the 1970s (then usually 500-2,500). Only small numbers of Anser anser have been observed in recent years, and no A. erythropus since 1989. These changes in populations are clearly related to the increased water depth in the western marshes.
Non-bird biodiversity: Mammals: Phoca caspica (V) occasionally haul out on the Caspian beach.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The entire area was designated a Protected Region in 1970. Cultivated land along the southern edge of the bay was subsequently excised from the reserve, reducing the area to 68,800 ha, and the reserve was upgraded to Wildlife Refuge. This refuge includes Miankaleh Peninsula, the open waters of Gorgan Bay and the marshes at the west end of the bay. Miankaleh Peninsula, Gorgan Bay and the nearby Lapoo-Zargmarz Ab-bandans (site 022) were designated a Ramsar Site of 100,000 ha in 1975. The entire Wildlife Refuge was designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1976. Some poaching occurs along the south-west boundary of the reserve, but this is probably not a serious problem. The major threat is the proposed construction of an asphalt highway down the centre of the peninsula to provide easy access to the fishery stations along the beach and at Ashuradeh. A highway has already been constructed up to the western boundary of the reserve, but work was halted following intervention by the Department of the Environment. The greatly improved access to the reserve would inevitably lead to increased pressure for settlement, increased farming activities and increased poaching.
BirdLife International (2019) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Miankaleh Peninsula and Gorgan Bay. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 15/12/2019.