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)

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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.

Wallcreeper-3 Wallcreeper-1 Wallcreeper-4 Wallcreeper-2

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.

Yellow-Wagtail-thunbergi-3

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.

Menetries-Warbler-2 Menetries-Warbler

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.

Lesser-Spotted-Eagle-and-Mo

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.