Raptor spectacular at Batumi, Georgia. Aug-Sep 2013

Batumi 28 Aug – 12 Sep 2013

Got back from a simply fantastic 2 ½ weeks in Georgia where I was volunteering at the Batumi raptor camp. Loads of information on the BRC can be found at http://www.batumiraptorcount.org/, so I’ll just give a brief account of my time there.

27/28 Aug – I flew out with Pegasus airlines from London Stansted via Istanbul to Batumi. This seemed the preferable option for me rather than getting a slightly cheaper flight to Istanbul then the bus to Batumi (which takes about 24 hrs!) or flying to Tbilisi and then getting the sleeper train to Batumi. The flights cost £214 return, so not bad value really (although my flight from Stansted was at 00:30hrs, so a bit of a red eye!) and I saved on time and hassle when I was in Georgia. I arrived in Batumi around midday on 28th and got a taxi to the village of Sakhalvasho where the BRC is based, and where I was to be living for the next 15 or so days. I dumped my bags, grabbed the scope and camera and made the short walk up to Station 1 for the afternoon. And what an afternoon! Quickly meeting the other volunteer counters, it was immediately apparent that today was a good day, as there were raptors all over the place. Streams of incoming Honey Buzzards passed overhead and to the east and west of us, and when I asked Simon (the co-ordinator) what I could do, he replied just enjoy it! So I did, and I’m grateful for that. I think to be thrown straight in to counting would have been a bit overwhelming, so I just watched the other guys, got a feel for what the counting was all about and simply marvelled at the spectacle unfolding over my head. All of the preliminary counts from Batumi can be found on their website at http://www.batumiraptorcount.org/projects/raptor-count/latest-count or on the excellent Dutch site, Trektellen at  http://www.trektellen.nl/default.asp?land=8&site=0&taal=2&tellingen=1&showfav=&sorteren=&addfav=1048, so please treat the figures given here with caution as they are unchecked and may represent double counting occasionally. However, they do give a fairly good idea of the numbers of raptors I was seeing on a daily basis. This first afternoon was spectacular, but more was to come.

Honey Buzzard – 22,579

Black Kite – 497
Marsh Harrier – 164
Montagu’s Harrier – 306
Mon/Pal – 344
Booted Eagle – 102
Short-toed Eagle – 8, 
Roller – 19
Bee-eater – 1000’s
Kettle of raptors glupsing (2) Kettle of raptors (88) Kettle of raptors (73) Incoming raptors Honey Buzzards (14) Honey Buzzards (20)

Its very difficult to capture the spectacle of thousands of Honey Buzzards streaming past the viewpoint, but hopefully you get the idea!

29 Aug – Went to Station 2 today, and realised just how unfit I am. The drive around to Station 2 takes about 30 mins, followed by a 20 min climb up a fairly steep path. Arriving at the Station, I managed to contain my impending nausea and fainting and settled down to work. Station 2 is situated about 5km due east of Station 1 and provides a beautiful setting from which to observe raptors. On the edge of the national park, you are more isolated here, and there were no other birders which added to the special feeling of remoteness. Green Warblers called regularly, and other migrants were sometimes seen flying south to accompany the multitudes of Bee-eaters that were constantly circling up alongside the Station before migrating south over the hills. I should mention that Honey Buzzards are the focus of attention at the moment, and for these few weeks, only Station 1 counts Honeys as the risk of double counting is so high. So all Station 2 had to do with regards the Honey Buzzard stream was pick out the other species and make sure that Station 1 was aware of all the raptor streams. We also counted those odd birds that Station 1 missed due to distance, cloud or other factors. All this was achieved through radio contact. Whatever station I’m at on a particular day, I’ll put the other stations counts in brackets, just so you can appreciate the number of birds heading through the area.

Honey Buzzard – 1652 (12,866)
Black Kite – 108 (136)
Marsh Harrier – 44 (84)
Montagu’s Harrier – 69 (129)
Pallid Harrier – 1
Mon/Pal – 120 (306)
Booted Eagle – 15
Short-toed Eagle – 2
Lesser Spotted Eagle – 1 (1)

European Bee-eater (25) European Bee-eater (1) European Bee-eater

Bee-eaters

30 Aug – Station 2 again. The surprise highlight being 3 flyby Dalmatian Pelicans that buzzed Station 1, so were a bit distant for us. However, it was a great way to finally get this species on the ol’ life list.

Honey Buzzard – 1181 (20,168)

Black Kite – 99 (66)
Egyptian Vulture – 1
Marsh Harrier – 24 (18)
Montagu’s Harrier – 18 (38)
Pallid Harrier – 4 (4)
Mon/Pal – 35 (59)
Booted Eagle – 6 (119)
Short-toed Eagle – 3 (12)
Lesser Spotted Eagle – 1
Dalmatian Pelican – 3
Black Stork – 2
White Stork – 8
(Roller 27)

Dalmatian Pelicans (5)Three Dalmatian Pelicans buzzing Station 1. Shame I was on Station 2!

Thought I’d show you what the view from Station 2 is like. Pretty special.

View from Station 2 (7) View from Station 2 (3) View from Station 2 (2) View from Station 2 (1)Looking back towards Station 1, which is on the flat topped hill a quarter in from the left.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

This Lesser Spotted Woodpecker showed really well in the small bare tree in front of Station 2.

31 Aug – Had a day off from counting today, so decided to go to the nearby Chorokhi Delta with Mattius, Albert and Simon. It was easy to get the marshrutka (local minibus) to Batumi and then another to the delta as the locals were very friendly and pointed us in the right direction. We actually saw a Dalmatian Pelican flying roughly alongside the bus on the way to the delta, but unfortunately couldn’t relocate it once we got off the bus! The Chorokhi Delta is a fairly large area, certainly big enough for a whole days exploration on foot. A mixture of scrub, large bushes, open short grass, ephemeral marshes, tidal river, gravel shoals and tidal mud, as well as the Black Sea, it proved to be a magnet for migrants. Highlights in no particular order were:

Little Crake – 1 immature

Corncrake
Broad-billed Sandpiper – 5
Marsh Sandpiper
Short-toed Larks – 20+
Ortolan – 5+
Citrine Wagtail – 20
Yelkouan Shearwater – 20
Red-necked Phalarope – 3
Peregrine
Short-toed Eagle
Purple Swamphen (of the grey-headed race)
Temminck’s Stint
Red-backed Shrike – lots
Isabelline Wheatear – 2
Purple Heron – 100+

Temminck's Stint and Citrine Wagtail (13)

Temminck’s Stint and Citrine Wagtail

Red-backed Shrike (81)

Red-backed Shrike

Purple Herons

Purple Herons

Purple and Grey Herons (10)

Mixed flock of Purple and Grey Herons

Choroki Delta (2)

Chorokhi Delta

White-winged Black Tern juv

White-winged Tern, juvenile

Unfortunately we also witnessed a lot of hunting, as we expected, as it was the weekend. We found a freshly dead Marsh Harrier, and it was sobering to realise that we had been watching that very bird flying around earlier in the day. We also saw one hunter taking a shot at a Wood Sandpiper that was walking on the mud! Not sure how that proves the guys manhood, shooting a small wading bird that is basically a sitting target, but then hunting is ingrained in Georgian culture, as in many countries.

01 Sep – Station 1. Day totally written off due to heavy rain. Did actually manage to get up to the station at lunch time where we ate lunch, got piss wet through and came back down again. Result. Last night was the most spectacular electrical storm I’ve ever witnessed. With no curtains at our windows, the whole room was almost constantly lit by lightning for an hour or so. At times there was more light than dark, and sleep was impossible in the bright white light. Spent most of the day reading and sleeping, but did manage to see a couple of nice samamisicus Redstarts in the garden.

Ehrenburg's Redstart

Common Redstart of the Caucasian race, samamisicus, aka “Ehrenburg’s” Redstart

02 Sep – Station 2. The days big highlight was an adult female Crested Honey Buzzard, found by Albert and Romain. It was basically on its own, and circled up in front of the station before heading past us and to the north. I managed some terrible shots of it.

Crested Honey Buzzard ad fem 1 (89) Crested Honey Buzzard ad fem 1 (63)

Crested Honey Buzzard, adult female

Crested Honey Buzzard – 1 ad female
Honey Buzzard – 1492 (67,163)
Black Kite – 255 (179)
Marsh Harrier – 80 (124)
Montagu’s Harrier – 46 (90)
Pallid Harrier – 7 (6)
Mon/Pal – 60 (131)
Booted Eagle – 23 (238)
Short-toed Eagle – 1 (5)
Steppe Eagle – 1 (2)
Steppe Buzzard – 17
Egyptian Vulture – 1 (1)
(Osprey 6)
(Eastern Imperial Eagle 1)
White Stork – 55 (65)
Black Stork – 1 (4)
Yellow Wagtail – 100’s
Golden Oriole – 4
Bee-eater – 1000’s
Roller 2 (250)
Ortolan – 100’s
Tawny Pipit – 2
Alpine Swift – 1
Turtle Dove – 447 (1625)
Crossbill – 1
Hobby (61)

Hobby

Steppe Eagle

Steppe Eagle

03 Sep – Station 1

Honey Buzzard – 42,464 (273), Black Kite – 736 (1168), Marsh Harrier – 88 (92), Montagu’s Harrier – 218 (153), Pallid Harrier – 10 (3), Mon/Pal – 216 (214), Booted Eagle – 16 (16), White Stork – 80, Golden Oriole – 4, Ruff – 12, Turtle Dove – 20+, Ortolan – 20

04 Sep – Station 1. A good Honey Buzzard passage today.
Honey Buzzard – 49,412 (3932)
Black Kite – 1351 (1664)
Marsh Harrier – 28 (48)
Montagu’s Harrier – 11 (42)
Pallid Harrier – 2 (4)
Mon/Pal – 63 (56)
Booted Eagle – 64
Lesser Spotted Eagle – 1
White Stork – 17
Black Stork – 3
Honey Buzzard (301) Honey Buzzard (107) Honey Buzzard (74) Honey Buzzard (69) Honey Buzzard (23) Honey Buzzard (4) Honey Buzzard (3) Honey Buzzard (2) Honey Buzzard (1)

The amazingly variable Honey Buzzard

05 Sep – Station 1. A very rainy day, spent all morning in bed and the afternoon was windy, cold and heavy showers. Consequently, very few raptors were moving.

Honey Buzzard – 159 (68)
Black Kite – 7 (19)
Marsh Harrier – 5
Montagu’s Harrier – 3
Mon/Pal – 12

06 Sep – Went to Mtirala National Park for the morning with Jan and a group of eco tourists, where we managed to see a grand total of 9 species in 4 hours including a very brief flyover Krüper’s Nuthatch! Autumn woodland birding is not the greatest idea! Did manage to see the Caucasian Salamander though, which is a good amphibian tick. After this ornithological failure, we decided to try the Batumi harbour area, which proved to be a good move. Highlights for me were Savi’s Warbler, c20 Red-backed Shrikes, c20 Whinchats and Barred, Marsh & “Caspian” Reed Warblers.

Caspian Reed Warbler

“Caspian” Reed Warbler. I think.

Batumi harbour (1)

The Batumi harbour area, great for migrants.

Ortolan

Ortolan

Northern Wheatear (5)

pale Northern Wheatear 

Red-backed Shrike (69) Red-backed Shrike (25) Red-backed Shrike (1) Red-backed Shrike (63)

Red-backed Shrikes. One of the commonest migrants, they were seemingly everywhere.

07 Sep – Station 2. Woke up with a slightly dodgy gut, which was worrying considering that thus far I was one of the few that had avoided getting ill. It wasn’t too bad though, so I went along to Station 2 as planned. By lunchtime my guts were in turmoil and I was fighting back the nausea. I wont go into too much detail, suffice to say that the possibility of cholera crossed my mind. Luckily, it wasn’t, although for a few hours in the late afternoon it was all I could do to act as scribe for the other counters. The task of looking up and counting raptors was beyond me. I did manage to get the energy to look at a female Crested Honey Buzzard that flew over us though!

Crested Honey Buzzard – 1 ad female
Honey Buzzard – 43 (27,149)
Black Kite – 1467 (310)
Marsh Harrier – 101 (54)
Montagu’s Harrier – 65 (39)
Pallid Harrier – 6 (6)
Mon/Pal – 134 (111)
Booted Eagle – ? (77)
Short-toed Eagle – 2
Lesser Spotted Eagle – 1
Crested Honey Buzzard Ad fem 2 (12)
Crested Honey Buzzard, adult female (on right)
Crested Honey Buzzard Ad fem 2 (38) Crested Honey Buzzard ad fem 2 (39)
Crested Honey Buzzard, adult female
Booted Eagle (59)
Booted Eagle
Black Kite showing lineatus features (1) Black Kite (3)
Black Kites
Short-toed Eagle (19)

Short-toed Eagle

08-09 Sep – Went up to Station 1 for the morning of the 8th, but I had the next three days off, so went on a little sojourn into the Georgian Lesser Caucasus. I was basically sight-seeing, but one of those sights happened to be an awesome Caspian Snowcock. Also went up onto the Javakheti plateaux, where there were loads of raptors feeding and moving. A Steppe Eagle was probably the highlight, but close views of hunting Montagu’s Harrier were nice too. The scenery was excellent, as I think you’ll agree.

Lesser Caucasus (8) Lesser Caucasus (10) Lesser Caucasus (12)

The Lesser Caucasus

Black Kites over Lesser Caucasus (15)

Black Kites circling over Lesser Caucasus

Caspian Snowcock (5)

Caspian Snowcock

Long-legged and Steppe Buzzard (6)

Long-legged and Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard (13)

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Eagle (28)

Steppe Eagle

Steppe Buzzard (35)

Steppe Buzzard

10 Sep – Another day off, so went to Batumi harbour with Dieter, via a site near Batumi for Krüper’s Nuthatch. The nuthatches eventually showed well, as did a brief Thrush Nightingale here. It was evident that migrants were on the move, so we went to the harbour area again. We saw nothing new of note (just c30 Whinchat, 15 R-b Shrikes, Barred Wblr etc.), so decided to move on to the Chorokhi Delta. Lots of Yellow-legged Gulls, Little Terns and migrants. The best of which were Little Crake, two Cattle Egret, 2+ Gull-billed Tern, 3 Caspian Tern, 4 Broad-billed Sandpipers and c15 Citrine Wagtails.

Garganey and Broad-billed Sandpipers (9)

Garganey, Broad-billed Sandpipers and Ringed Plovers

Fisherman at Choroki Delta (6)

Fisherman

Citrine Wagtail (30)

Citrine Wagtail

Choroki Delta (3) Choroki Delta (1)

Chorokhi Delta beach

Little Terns with White-winged Black Tern (1)

Little Terns

11 Sep – Station 1.

Honey Buzzard – 2475 (9830)
Black Kite – 4199 (7453)
Marsh Harrier – 260 (345)
Montagu’s Harrier – 68 (79)
Pallid Harrier – 2 (22)
Mon/Pal – 205 (184)
Booted Eagle – ?
Short-toed Eagle – 3 (8)
Egyptian Vulture – 3 (4)
Black Stork – 12 (16)
Tawny Pipit – c20

12 Sep – Station 1

Honey Buzzard – 2562 (4471)
Black Kite – 2047 (2279)
Marsh Harrier – 195 (193)
Montagu’s Harrier – 39 (45)
Pallid Harrier – 9 (13)
Mon/Pal – 81 (87)
Lesser Spotted/Steppe Eagle – 5
Booted Eagle – 120 (???)
Egyptian Vulture – 1
Short-toed Eagle – 2
13 Sep – Spent my last morning at Station 1, when again good numbers of Honey Buzzards and Black Kites were migrating, but then I had to drag myself away to catch my return flight at 1345 from Batumi.  It had been an amazing experience, with a truly awesome birding experience on show most days.  The company had been incredible, and I made some great friends who I’ll hopefully see again at some point.  Here are some parting shots of the social side of the Batumi Raptor Count experience.

Counters at Station 2 (3)

Station 2 crew. 

Station 1 in the rain (3)

Huddled out of the rain on Station 1.

Social nights (9)

Social nights (16) Social nights (6) Social nights (12) Social nights (4) Social nights (3) Romain sleeping Me, with Finnstick Florien asleep Goshawk on hand (1) Clement watching raptors (2)

Aki Aki, Filip and Finnstick (2)

Armenia, May 2013

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.

Lesser Spotted Eagle (55)

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 (19)

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 Gull (36)

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 at Lake Sevan (11) Frog at Lake Sevan (8)

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.

Terek Sandpiper (12)

Armenian Gull and Terek Sandpipers

Terek Sandpiper & Little Stint (52) Terek Sandpiper & Little Stint (20) Terek Sandpiper & Little Stint (16)Terek Sandpipers and Little Stints

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.

I1

The view from our homestay in Yeghegnadzor

Eastern Rock Nuthatch (70)

Eastern Rock Nuthatch. Even at distance, the expansive black eye-stripe behind the eye is obvious

IMG_1560

The gorge

Rock Sparrow (4) Rock Sparrow (6)

Rock Sparrow

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.

IMG_1561

High altitude bushes along the pass

IMG_1575

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.

At Megrhi. l-r Dermot Breen, Me, Wilton Farrelly, Ian Graham, Garry Armstrong, Davey Steele

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 4x4

Lada 4×4. Told you they existed!

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush (8)

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush

Water Pipit (8) Water Pipit (32)

Water Pipit

The Caspian Snowcock. Just don’t blink…

Looking for Caspian Snowcock

Searching for Caspian Snowcock

Looking for Caspian Snowcock 1 Me, Harry, Davey & Dermot

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.

IMG_1651

Stunning flowers, just coming into bloom. This must be an amazing site for botanists in the summer.

IMG_1635 IMG_1632 IMG_1600 IMG_1596

Looking around from the Snowcock site. Not bad really.

Picnic site Picnic Picnic site fridge

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 Wheatear (142) Persian Wheatear (31) Persian Wheatear (71)

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 (1)

Persian Wheatear chick, just out of the nest. The red tail is already poking through.

Blk-headed Bunt & Isabelline Wheatear (4)

Black-headed Bunting and Isabelline Wheatear

Black-headed Bunting (42) Black-headed Bunting (46)

Black-headed Buntings. “This stream aint big enough for the both of us…”

Upcher's Warbler (4)

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.

Bimaculated Lark (19)

Bimaculated Lark

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 .

Standing stones

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 Tern (286) White-winged Black Tern (203) White-winged Black Tern (199) White-winged Black Tern (186) White-winged Black Tern (185) White-winged Black Tern (161) White-winged Black Tern (36) White-winged Black Tern (35) White-winged Black Tern (42)

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

Whiskered Tern. A few were mixed in with the White-winged Blacks. 

Sand Martins (5)

Sand Martins. Only the flies were more numerous!

Paddyfield Warbler (2)

Paddyfield Warbler. Nice supercillium just poking through the reeds.

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Part of Armash fish ponds with the southern slopes of Mt Ararat in the distance.

Caspian Reed Warbler (14) Caspian Reed Warbler (11)

“Caspian” Reed Warbler

Bearded Tit (66) Bearded Tit (35)

Bearded Tit

Moustached 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.

Bee-eater (9)

Migrating European Bee-eaters

Honey Buzzard (40) Honey Buzzard (90) Honey Buzzard (1) Honey Buzzard (149) Honey Buzzard (157)Honey Buzzards. The numbers that go through Spain and the Bosphorous are nothing compared to those that go through the Caucasus.

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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! 

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Mt Aragat habitat

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Red-backed Shrikes were very common up here

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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.

IMG_1792 Rock Bunting (3)

Rock Bunting

Radde's Accentor (18)

Radde’s Accentor

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush (32)

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush displaying

Shorelark (18)

pencillata Shorelark and brevirostris Twite

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush (19)

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush

Steppe Buzzard (15)

Steppe Buzzard

White-throated Robin (9)

White-throated Robin

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 (4)

Vedi gorge area

Ortolan (32)

Ortolan Bunting

Long-legged Buzzard (11)

Long-legged Buzzard

IMG_1828 Eastern Rock Nuthatch (40) Eastern Rock Nuthatch (8)

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… 

Finsch's Wheatear (37)

Finsch’s Wheatear

Cuckoo (5)

Cuckoo

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…

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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.

Georgia, April 2012 – the high Caucasus.

Yes, I know this is a tad late, but I’m doing preparation for my next trip to Georgia at the moment and I suddenly realised that I hadn’t done a blog post on last years trip! I’ll not write reams on it, suffice to say that it was a very successful trip that scored all of the endemics and more. Unfortunately, I seemed to fail to get decent pictures of most things, but I’ll upload a few of the less bad ones. Scenery 7 Scenery-2 Scenery-6 Scenery-3

Four images showing the entrance to the Kazbegi valley area, then going into the valley. Truly spectacular scenery. The final shot shows some of the Buckthorn that covers large areas of the valley bottom and lower slopes. The Buckthorn is great for migrants and Guldenstadt’s Redstart.

Guldenstadt's-Redstart-2 Guldenstadt's-Redstart-1

Guldenstadt’s Redstart. One of the most stunning birds in the Western Palearctic. On our first day we saw up to 15 of them in the roadside buckthorn, then followed that up with regular sightings thereafter. By visiting in late April, the snow should still be extensive at higher altitudes, forcing the redstarts lower, and so it proved for us. Many birders go in the summer when they are breeding at very high altitudes and demand a potentially gruelling hike to find just one or two.  Unfortunately for me, every time I tried to digiscope the close showy ones, they buggered off!

Caucasian Black Grouse. Two males sizing each other up. We had good views of several males and a couple of females just outside where we were staying. Lekking behaviour was also seen. Again, those that go later in the season can really struggle to connect with this iconic species as they disappear into the rapidly lengthening grasses and low shrubs.

Caucasian Snowcock. Currently the only true endemic to the Caucasus range, views are always a bit distant but perfectly acceptable through the scope. After a bit of a worrisome first afternoon when we heard and saw nothing, we then found 5-6 on the slopes behind our hotel.

Caucasian-Chiffchaff

Caucasian Chiffchaff. Call is surprisingly different from Common Chiffchaff.

Caucasian Great Rosfinch 1

Caucasian Great Rosefinch. A pr flew in and landed within 20 meters of us. Stunning views of what may prove to be another endemic of these mountains. At the moment, its considered to be part of the Eastern Great Rosefinch, but its isolated from that by several 1000km. Don’t think there is much chance of them meeting either…!!

Lammegier

Lammegier. An adult, and a species we saw multiple times every day. This must be the best location in the Western Palearctic for them, especially considering the views that you can get.

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Wallcreeper. We found 5 birds in the valley, including one on the roadside from the van! Again, this is a fantastic place to see this charismatic species. The top bird was in a dry river bed and was nesting in a low cliff next to the track. The bottom image shows how good the camouflage of Wallcreeper is. They can be incredibly hard to find, and its only the constant wing flicking that makes them stand out.

Red-fronted-Serin

Red-fronted Serin. A very bad shot of what is a common bird up there.

Twite

Twite. The local race is a lot paler, with some interesting dark speckling on the chest. Still has a lovely pink rump though. Pretty common here too.

Black Redstart 2.1 Black Redstart 1

Black Redstarts. These are of the race ohruros, and are something of an intermediate between eastern and western populations. The amount of red on the belly of birds around Kazbegi is variable, although obviously trying to decide which are local breeders and which are migrants is impossible in a short visit. Note the white wing flash on the lower bird, which is absent on eastern birds and should be absent on ohruros too. Some birds here had much less red, and were pretty much identical to gibraltarensis, just without the white wing flash. An interesting species!

Gravestones around Kazbegi (1)

Local headstones carry an amazingly accurate image of the deceased. Its actually fascinating to see, and the artwork is amazing.

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Yellow-Wagtail-beema-or-fla

Migrants pass through in large numbers, depending on the weather. We were unlucky last year, but still managed to see a few Yellow Wagtails of three races (thunbergi and beema above – there were also several feldegg),  plus Red-breasted Flycatcher, a brief Semi-collared Flycatcher, Green Warbler and Red-throated Pipits.

Black-KiteRaptors were passing through in good numbers. As we first approached the Kazbegi area and went over the high pass, I looked up to see long lines of raptors moving through at high altitude. Steppe Buzzards, Montagu’s Harriers, Steppe Eagle, Black Kites, Booted Eagle, a Pallid Harrier and more all piled through. Truly amazing, and I failed to get any usable shots of it! Some of the Black Kites came lower and like the one above, showed features of lineatus (“Black-eared” Kite) of Central and East Asia. The white primary window could do with being bigger, but its part the way there. Intergrades??

Long-tailed-Tit

Heading back to Tbilisi, we stopped off to try and see some woodland birds in the huge and impressive beech woodlands that cover the foothills of the Caucasus. The only thing i managed to photograph was this Long-tailed Tit! Note the white head of this bird, which should be of the dark headed Turkish/Caucasian race.

Hoopoe

Hoopoe.

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We then moved into the steppe-like area of Chachuna for a complete change in habitat. Lots of dry country species here, and our species count of raptors on our first day there was incredible. Eagles, harriers, buzzards, kites, falcons and more all moved north on a broad front. Once at Chachuna, we realised that Menetries Warbler was pretty common and with patience gave good views.

Eastern-Imperial-Eagle

Eastern Imperial Eagle. A pr were nesting close to where we stay.

Osprey

Osprey. Another migrant raptor heading low north after stopping to fish in the reservoir at Chachuna.

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Montagu’s Harrier attacking Lesser Spotted Eagle. These two species were breeding close to each other. Too close for comfort for the male Monty’s!

Georgia is a great place, the birding is excellent with some real Western Palearctic (and even a couple of Global) specialities, and the people are incredibly friendly. The Caucasus certainly deserve more attention on the birding scene, so I intend to spend a bit of time exploring over there over the coming few years. Just look at a map of the area and start to drool over what could be moving through on migration.

I’ll be leading a Sunbird tour out there in late April, and there are still a couple of places left. See http://www.sunbirdtours.co.uk/tours/georgia-high-caucasus/  for details.