Isn’t social media great? I was sat in a bar in Great Yarmouth in February musing on Facebook about how I was thinking of going into Armenia after my Sunbird tour to Georgia had finished. A few minutes later and Dermot Breen replied suggesting I join him and four Northern Irish guys on their trip. The timing was perfect, as they were doing Kazbegi while we were in Chachuna, then heading south to Armenia via Tbilisi just as I would be in Tbilisi anyway. A plan was made! We met in a café in Tbilisi and I was introduced to Wilton Farrelly, Garry Armstrong, Ian Graham, David Steel and Dermot.
Heading south in a tiny people carrier with our bags balancing around us, I did feel bad that I was making life even more cramped for everyone, but I needn’t have worried. After about 90 mins we arrived at the Armenian border. No visa is needed now, and it was a simple matter to walk through immigration on the Georgian side, then over the bridge that forms the border and through into Armenia. Our ground agent, Zhanna, was waiting for us with our interpreter Harutyun (known as Harry), our “fixer”, Artur, and our driver, whose name I could never remember. The bus was great, with loads of room and we all spread out enjoying this newfound freedom. The local birder and guide, Vasil, that birders have used in the past is no longer doing any guiding as he’s now too busy with work. However, Zhanna and he are friends and Artur used to be his driver, so we would at least be taken to the right sites for all the key species.
Driving in Armenia was very similar to driving in Georgia. By this point I’d given up looking ahead as it just scared me, so concentrated on looking at the scenery and trying to keep a tally of how many Bee-eaters and Rollers we saw as we sped past. Driving vaguely south, we basically skirted the edge of Azerbaijan. Despite being famous in the west only for hosting the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been decidedly sticky since the end of the Soviet years. There is far too much history to go into here, but to cut a long story short, there is still the possibility of snipers taking pot shots at you if you wander too near to the border. Still, the views were great, and we scored our first Lesser Spotted Eagles and a nice Black Stork.
Pair of Lesser Spotted Eagles displaying near Dilijan.
Our first overnight was near Dilijan in the north east of the country in an area of outstanding beauty, although to be fair, most of the Caucasus could be described as areas of outstanding beauty. The extensive deciduous woodland that covered the hillsides held a lot of promise, and our lodgings in an old Soviet era holiday camp were rustic but perfectly fine. In fact, the place used to be used by Soviet artists and composers as a retreat. Doing some background reading, it’s evident that the Caucasus were often used by Russians as a holiday retreat.
Waking up to the sound of Green Warblers singing was a treat, and they proved to be very common at this spot. I managed to miss the only potential lifer for me here (Middle Spotted Woodpecker), but I suppose I could be content with Red-breasted Flycatchers, Hawfinches, samamisicus Redstarts, Common Rosefinches, Lesser Spotted Eagles and many other commoner woodland species. Surprisingly, we missed Semi-collared Flycatcher, which is supposed to breed here. I can only think that they hadn’t arrived yet. We also started getting used to the outstanding food that was prepared for us on a regular basis. Our evening meal yesterday and breakfast today were served in the home of a local women, and it was excellent. In fact, it’s worth saying now that all of our food was excellent, and Artur (or more precisely Artur’s wife!) had the knack of producing fantastic picnics that would be presented to us whenever needed. There was even beer!
Green Warbler (honest!), singing from high exposed perches.
Moving south from Dilijan, we soon arrived at Lake Sevan. This is the second largest alpine lake in the World, so I’m told. From an ornithological viewpoint it’s interesting as (one of?) the main nesting area for the Armenian Gull. This highly range restricted species breeds here and at a few other sites in the Caucasus, wintering around the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. In the marshes along the lake we managed to find a few interesting things, but the highlight for me was the caspia race of Reed Bunting. Its bulbous bill being the obvious difference to our Reed Bunting.
Armenian Gulls. One of the major World colonies of this species that is mainly restricted as a breeder to high altitude lakes in the Lesser Caucasus.
Frog species at Lake Sevan
Reed Bunting of the caspia race. Note the bill.
At our lunch spot overlooking one of the gull colonies, we found a little group of Terek Sandpipers and I rapidly doubled my total of WP Terek sightings! We then had some bad news when we heard that the road south had been blocked by a rock fall and would not be cleared that day. We had no choice but to double back and divert through Yerevan. This added a couple of hours to our day and meant that we wouldn’t be visiting the best site for Crimson-winged Finch or the marshes at the southern end of Lake Sevan which sounded very interesting as they are a regular stop off for migrating Demoiselle Cranes. Such is life.
Armenian Gull and Terek Sandpipers
Driving through Yerevan and then south towards Yeghegnadzor, we were told that the biblical Mt Ararat was away to the west, but low cloud prevented us from seeing the summit. We did realise how small Armenia is though, as we had seemingly only just left the Azerbaijan border to the east, we were now within sight of the Turkish border to the west followed quickly by the Nakhchivan border to the south. Nakhchivan is actually an isolated enclave of Azerbaijan bordered to the east by Armenia, Turkey to the west and Iran to the south. Borders are very complicated in the Caucasus! Here again we were warned not to go near the actual border, and fortifications along the ridgeline spoke of an unfriendly welcome. We did pass within site of the Armash fish ponds, and from what we could see it looked like a huge wetland area. More on this later…
Driving to Yeghegnadzor, a roadside Finsch’s Wheatear was my first lifer in Armenia. We stayed the night in Yeghegnadzor where Nightingales sang outside our homestay and a flock of Common Rosefinches in the town centre numbered about 50! The following day we started to hit the specialities properly. A small arid valley south of Yeghegnadzor came good with Western and Eastern Rock Nuthatches, two White-throated Robins, Rock Sparrow, Black-eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Black-headed Bunting and Levant Sparrowhawk.
The view from our homestay in Yeghegnadzor
Eastern Rock Nuthatch. Even at distance, the expansive black eye-stripe behind the eye is obvious
Pushing ever south, we drove over a high plateaux area before descending into a huge gorge at Goris. The arid vegetation in the bottom of the gorge held Ménétries’s Warbler, while the deciduous woodlands that began near the top of the gorge spoke of cooler climates and more familiar species. Indeed, the woodland cloaked mountains were one of the scenic highlights of the trip for me. They simply extended as far as you could see. Armenia certainly has environmental issues, with extensive mining and whole reservoirs created to store poisonous waste (check out the colour of Artsvanik Reservoir on google maps), but there is still plenty of habitat left and the countryside is teeming with birds.
High altitude bushes along the pass
Ménétries’s Warbler sang from these bushes near Goris.
Travelling south, we passed through a couple of towns whose architecture gave away their Soviet history very quickly. Amazing to think that the USSR once stretched all the way down to the Iranian border here at Meghri. Now, the towns have been left with the legacy of possibly the worst architects in the history of humanity in both structural integrity and appearance http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1988_Spitak_earthquake .
Arriving in Meghri, we soon found out that the site for Persian Wheatear was so close to the Iranian border that we would need an escort there. Luckily (!), the owner of the hotel we were staying in was the man for the job, and as the sun dropped worryingly low in the sky we headed off to see, what was for me, probably the main target of the trip. Having been strongly advised not to raise our binoculars or cameras in the direction of Iran, we were taken up a dirt track to an old quarry. Within minutes our first Persian Wheatear was showing well, and we eventually had a pair here.
Persian victory! Posing at the Persian Wheatear site near Meghri, with Iran in the background. From L-R, Dermot Breen, me, Wilton Farrelly, Ian Graham, Garry Armstrong and Davey Steele.
Feeling elated at this victory, we retired happy. The next day dawned and we were greeted by a 4×4 Lada (yes, they do exist!) and a more traditional looking 4×4 that would be our vehicles for the day. They were the only way we could attempt to climb up to the Caspian Snowcock site. Caspian Snowcock has a rather large but fragmented distribution, occurring from Turkey through into Iran, but is at a low density everywhere. It’s also very shy and wary of man. Not surprising for a fat game bird that could feed a family of six! Our site for it was above a village that seemed to be deserted except for the trousers hung out to dry outside one house. The cars coped easily with the mud track and we were soon at the recommended spot. No Snowcock. Couldn’t even hear one calling. We hiked up over a low ridge and luckily I picked out the familiar outline of a Snowcock sat on a boulder high up on another ridgeline. Silhouetted views, it then fly off over the ridge and out of sight. Bugger. Four of us decided to climb the ridge and look for it, but we spent the next couple of hours looking with no luck. And still no sound of them at all. We had to make do with some Alpine Choughs, Alpine Accentors and lots of Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush activity. Plus the views were outstanding, so not a total loss. And yes, I did tick the Snowcock on those views 😉 Still, the lunch stop was worth a few pics.
Lada 4×4. Told you they existed!
Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush
The Caspian Snowcock. Just don’t blink…
Searching for Caspian Snowcock
Sort of a victory! Relaxing after a tiring climb. It was a hell of a steep slope behind us. L-R is me, Harutyun Galstyan (Harry), Davey Steele and Dermot Breen. Harry was our interpreter, and did a great job for us.
Stunning flowers, just coming into bloom. This must be an amazing site for botanists in the summer.
Looking around from the Snowcock site. Not bad really.
Picnic site, complete with fully stocked fridge! You don’t get that kind of service in Britain.
We decided to go back to the quarry site for some more wheatear action, and walked further up the valley this time. We found at least three Persian Wheatears here, which leads me to think there are at least two pairs. I also strongly suspect there are more of them spread out along the Iranian border as this habitat appeared fairly extensive, so the incentive is there to go and find your own site. While watching the Persians, I suddenly noticed that they were feeding a newly fledged chick just below us. This chick was just out of the nest and the parents were clearly not happy, so we retreated at this point. Also in the valley were more Eastern Rock Nuthatches, loads of Eastern Orphean Warblers, a few Upcher’s Warblers, Chukars, lots of Black-headed Buntings and Black-eared Wheatears, plus the ubiquitous Red-backed, Woodchat and Lesser Grey Shrikes that were seemingly everywhere and at every altitude. The others dug out a Sombre Tit while I held back to study the Persian Wheatears. There were also many Bee-eaters migrating over along with several Honey Buzzards. A small reed fringed pond on the border here held a few Little Bitterns, and I suspect would host the odd Western Palearctic mega as it seems to be the only open water for miles in this arid valley. Not sure what though!
Persian (Red-tailed) Wheatear. A recent split from Kurdish (Red-tailed) Wheatear, but I guess opinion may be divided. Still, looks good to me.
Persian Wheatear chick, just out of the nest. The red tail is already poking through.
Black-headed Bunting and Isabelline Wheatear
Black-headed Buntings. “This stream aint big enough for the both of us…”
Upcher’s Warbler. Honest.
The following morning came, as it always tends to do, and we embarked on the long journey north back to Yeghegnadzor for the night. Passing back over the high plateaux again, we stopped and scanned at a few ploughed fields. This proved a good move, as one such field near Sisian held masses of birds. Mostly Northern Wheatears, Whinchats, Water Pipits, Linnets, Twites, Shorelarks and Skylark. One particular field held two Bimaculated Larks, and these showed rather well. Also here, flying in and out of the mist and rain were a migrating flock of White-winged Black Terns and a flock of Wood Sandpipers.
We also visited an intriguing stone circle at Karahunj, and turns out this may be 7500 yrs old http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zorats_Karer .
After another night in Yeghegnadzor, we drove to the fabled Armash fish ponds. Sometimes described as one of the best wetlands in the Western Palearctic, we were not to be disappointed. We only walked around about 25% of the site and it took us all day. There were simply birds everywhere! White-winged Black Terns numbered about 5000 in the small area of the ponds that we were able to check, plus tens of thousands of Sand Martins and Common Swifts, and loads of things like Pygmy Cormorants, Glossy Ibis, Ferruginous Duck, Collared Pratincole, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Whiskered Tern, Montagu’s Harrier, Caspian Reed, Paddyfield, Great Reed, Moustached and Savi’s Warblers, more Bearded Tits than you could shake a sticky reed at and a nice selection of waders that included a pair of very brief White-tailed Plovers. These flew past quite distantly and unfortunately we couldn’t relocate them. A drake White-headed Duck was also a nice find, and we were accompanied by a rather vocal Ménétries’s Warbler while watching it. There was also a nice displaying Lesser Short-toed Lark that I failed to study in enough detail. Seems that Asian Short-toed Lark gets very near to the Caucasus, be good to know for sure just how close.
Common Swifts buzzing Dermot
White-winged Black Terns. Certainly the largest concentration I’ve ever seen, and one of the best birding sights I’ve seen. A visual feast that was simply breathtaking at times.
Whiskered Tern. A few were mixed in with the White-winged Blacks.
Sand Martins. Only the flies were more numerous!
Paddyfield Warbler. Nice supercillium just poking through the reeds.
Part of Armash fish ponds with the southern slopes of Mt Ararat in the distance.
“Caspian” Reed Warbler
After this wonderful bird fest and a decent night in Yerevan, we headed up to Mt Aragat, the highest mountain in Armenia. The scenery was impressive, and as we gained height we scored many flocks of migrating Honey Buzzards, plus a frustratingly brief flock of Crane species. Again, the sheer number of species such as Red-backed Shrike and Bee-eater was staggering, the countryside was just alive with farmland birds. Up above the treeline, we managed to find our main target species fairly easily when a pair of Radde’s Accentors showed up. After a brief touristy interlude at the impressive Amberd church and castle, we explored a bit more. With several White-throated Robins, lots of Shorelarks and Twite, displaying Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes, Rock Buntings, perched Lesser Spotted Eagles and Steppe Buzzards, this site would certainly repay further visits. We failed to find any Crimson-winged Finches in the mist and poor visibility at high altitude, and there are supposed to be Caspian Snowcocks up there as well.
Migrating European Bee-eaters
This stream must be man made as it flows dead straight along the hillside. We couldn’t see where it originated, but to see a stream running for so far along a hill rather than down it was, quite frankly, weird!
Mt Aragat habitat
Red-backed Shrikes were very common up here
These burrows have been uncovered after the snow melted. I think they are from the Snow Vole, and I had brief views of a largish vole dashing from one burrow to another.
Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush displaying
pencillata Shorelark and brevirostris Twite
Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush
After another night in Yerevan, we spent our last day in the Vedi area. The main target here is Mongolian Trumpeter Finch, but we failed to see it. In fact, I think the last person to see it here was Janne Aalto back in 2006 (http://www.caligata.com/tripreports/en/georgia-ja-armenia-14-27-7-2006), with no (?) sightings since then. Be good to be corrected on that… Anyway, we birded this area all day and thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, a decent passage of Honey Buzzards passed over us for much of the day, as did other raptors including Lammergeier, Black Vulture, Long-legged Buzzard and Golden Eagle to name just a few. Passerines in the wadi were impressive, and we had great views of displaying Finsch’s Wheatear, Rufous Bush Robin, Black-headed Buntings, Grey-necked Bunting and Upcher’s Warbler. An Eastern Rock Nuthatch also put on a decent show for us. On the drive back to Yerevan there seemed to have been a decent arrival of Rose-coloured Starlings, with every village stuffed with them. We saw many hundreds on the drive back, mostly in mobile flocks around the orchards and apricot groves.
Vedi gorge area
Eastern Rock Nuthatch nest and adult with food. For some reason, instead of taking the caterpillar into the nest, it decided to bash it death and try and incorporate it into the mud fabric of the nest! And now you know why Eastern Rock Nuthatches have failed to take over the World…
Rufous Bush Robin
All in all, Armenia was a fantastic country with much to offer. The birding was excellent, the people were very friendly and the scenery was stunning. Looking forward to a return visit already…
The twin peaks of Mt Ararat, the spiritual mountain of Armenia and the dominant skyline feature of Yerevan and south-eastern Armenia, even though it is now within modern Turkey.