This was to be my second tour to Georgia, guiding for Sunbird, and I was thoroughly looking forward to seeing the mountains, woodlands and steppes of this stunning country again. As we taxied along the runway towards our arrival gate in Tbilisi airport, three Montagu’s Harriers flew past my window and provided a grand promise of things to come. This year we landed late morning, so departed for the heights of the Greater Caucasus and the Kazbegi area straightaway. This late departure from Tbilisi was rewarded with several Levant Sparrowhawks migrating over the main highway outside the airport. Our lunch stop in the beech woods provided a fine adult male Redstart of the highly distinctive Caucasian race “samamisicus”, but we were impatient to get into the mountains proper.
Woodland glade. The lower slopes of the Caucasus are cloaked in wonderfully verdant forest.
In the beech woodlands on the lower slopes of the Caucasus, the stunning Common Redstart of the race samamisicus (also known as Ehrenburg’s Redstart) is fairly common. Note the massive white wing patch. The 1st sum males are not quite as distinctive…
Journeying towards the high pass along the Georgian Military Highway, we came across this line of parked lorries. Apparently the road beyond here going over the pass towards Kazbegi was in such a state that they were not letting the lorries through during daylight to avoid the main car traffic.
Parked lorries waiting for dark
Going over the high pass, a superb Lammegeier buzzed us within a few meters at our first stop at the head of the Kazbegi valley, although being stared at by a vulture is perhaps as disconcerting as it is awe inspiring!
Lammegeier is one of my favourites in Georgia, and they just seem to always perform really well. Even in silhouette they are just such a distinctive bird, and their sheer size always takes my breath away.
We were well and truly within the realm of the alpine specialities, and it was pleasing to see that much snow remained at higher altitudes. Our trip is carefully timed to take advantage of a receding snowline, but one that is still low enough to push alpine birds lower into the valleys. We were not to be disappointed. As we drove through the valley towards the village of Stepantsminda, our first Güldenstӓdt’s Redstarts gave themselves up in the roadside buckthorn bushes.
Güldenstӓdt’s Redstart. I still haven’t managed to take a decent picture of this species, they just seem to know whenever I raise a camera at them.
The low cloud and drizzle gave way to glorious sunshine on our second day, and we were treated to sunny and dry weather for the remainder of the tour. This resulted in exceptional views of the snow-capped peaks, including the huge bulk of the glaciated Mt Kazbek towering over the village.
Mt Kazbek with the village of Stepantsminda in the foreground
Looking down the valley from just above Stepantsminda
Mt Kazbek. The Georgian name translates as “Ice Mountain” I think, which is rather appropriate.
Our exploration of this area over the next three days produced all of the hoped for specialities. Perhaps the hardest and least predictable of these is the Caucasian Great Rosefinch. This was our first target and we were stunned to find no less than 31 of these big and beautiful finches feeding in the buckthorn.
Caucasian Great Rosefinch territory, plus this is also a good spot for Caucasian Chiffchaff
Further sightings of birds flying over the valley and of a pair in the meadows above the village pushed the day total to an incredible 41! Considering we could only find two the following day and none the day after, it can be seen just how crucial timing is for this trip. Indeed, one of the Güldenstӓdt’s Redstarts we were watching just took off and climbed almost vertically, interspersing its rapid ascent with some impressive acrobatics.
It climbed higher, showing off its massive white wingbar and illustrating the alternative (but very dull!) name of White-winged Redstart.
It disappeared into the blue and it’s tempting to think that we were watching it depart its winter grounds for the breeding grounds much higher up. Caucasian Snowcock and Caucasian Black Grouse both performed as expected, although both initially did their best to hide from us! The snowcocks eventually showed well as two pairs interacted in territorial disputes, and four male grouse indulged in some lekking behaviour, their tails held bolt upright as the strutted over the high snowfields.
A pr of Caucasian Snowcocks. Honest!
Even a Snowcock struggles to get a grip on an ice field!
A Caucasian double act. Snowcock to the left and Black Grouse to the right. Scope views were better than this!
The group enjoying views of Caucasian Snowcock and Caucasian Black Grouse.
Giorgi Darchiashvili, our Georgian guide.
Other highlights were many and varied, but included close views of two Wallcreepers, a couple of confiding Caucasian Chiffchaffs, Red-fronted Serins, Ring Ouzels, Water Pipits, ochruros Black Redstarts, brevirostris Twite and Alpine and Red-billed Choughs. The sunny weather slowed migration down, but we were still treated to fine views of Green Warbler, Red-throated Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher and a big surprise in Isabelline Wheatear.
Wallcreeper. Always one of the highlights, and this time was no exception as we found two pairs in close proximity. One of them gave exceptional views down to a few meters, but the strong light made for tricky photography.
Treecreeper. Not as good as a Wallcreeper.
Shore Lark of the Turkish/Caucasian race penicilata. In the book it says that the black of the ear coverts should meet with the black of the breast. Guess this one hadn’t read the book.
Ring Ouzel of the Caucasian race amicorum. The white fringes to the flight feathers are really prominent.
Lesser Grey Shrike. A roadside migrant.
Our journey south over the pass again was interrupted by three showy Snowfinches, while a steady stream of raptors over us included Pallid, Montagu’s and Marsh Harriers, Steppe, Eastern Imperial and Golden Eagles, Osprey, Honey Buzzards and many Steppe Buzzards.
Watching the Snowfinch at the roadside
Eastern Imperial Eagle, 2nd cal yr.
Continuing south for an overnight stop in Tbilisi and then onwards to the steppe area of Chachuna, we stopped several times to enjoy close views of Calandra Lark, armenica Siberian Stonechats, many Rollers, Bee-eaters, Woodchat, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Spanish Sparrows and Black-headed and Ortolan Buntings. The fields and scrubland between Tbilisi and Dedoplis Tskaro are just amazing for European farmland birds. It should be compulsory for western European Environment ministers to go to the Caucasus and see just how many birds we are missing in the west. Fields with larks, Corn Buntings everywhere and regular raptors quartering the wide margins. Arriving at Chachuna, it was quickly apparent that our timing was excellent and many of the regions breeding birds were in action. Every scan of the area produced something new. Rock Nuthatch at the nest, Black Vulture gliding slowly right over us, Eastern Black-eared, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears (the latter with punk-haired chicks!), a pair of Stone Curlews down to a few feet, Levant Sparrowhawk, Black Francolin, Ménétries’s and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Rufous Bush Robin and Lesser Short-toed Lark all showing well and Nightingales singing seemingly everywhere. Combined with more Rollers, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Black-headed and Corn Buntings than you could point your bins at, we were saddened to have to drag ourselves away.
Unknown snake, it had a beautiful reddish colouration
A mantis of some kind
Crested Lark and fly
Black Francolin. These are vocal but elusive, so we were pleased to get views of one bird that eventually showed quite well.
Siberian Stonechat of the race armenica. A local breeder and fairly common.
Our final night in Tbilisi was spent enjoying some fine Georgian food and wine at a traditional restaurant before the group parted for their return flights home. I then had another night in Tbilisi before I met with Dermot Breen and the Northern Irish lads for a trip into Armenia. That will be pt 2 of this blog update, hopefully before Hades freezes over!