27th April - 3rd May, 2017
After a very comfortable night at the Ambassadori Hotel we were met by our driver Zviadi (courtesy of, and with great thanks to, the Georgian National Tourism Administration for accommodation and transport arrangements) and our guide, Dachi, from Batumi Birding. The drive up to Kazbegi was uneventful (apart from a woodpecker that turned out to be Great Spotted) until we were high in the mountains.
A single Steppe Eagle circled slowly up the mountain side thermals, occasionally being mobbed by Ravens.
Alpine and Red-billed Choughs, Ravens and Ring Ouzel all seemed attracted to the tourist stops - easy food sources I guess.
An Ortolan foraging amongst the grass and litter.
Arriving in Kazbegi we checked into the Rooms Hotel (once again, thanks to GMT), a restored Brutalist ex-Soviet hotel. Sounds odd? Well, no, it is a seriously relaxed and relaxing Alpine hotel. Spacious, comfortable and superbly staffed. Anyway, to the birds. We headed straight to the Sea Buckthorn bushes that follow a stream just outside Kazbegi. This was a classic place for Great Rosefinch and Guldenstadt's Redstarts, neither of which we saw but it was useful to become acquainted with the habitat. We had to content ourselves with a dukhenensis White Wagtail,
more Ring Ouzels, Rock Buntings, Redstarts and Black Redstarts including the semirufus form.
The following morning Dachi and I went up to eastern slopes behind Kazbegi and heard the distinctive calls of Caucasian Snowcock (Lifer #1) - it remained hidden but listening to the calls echoing around the grey rock faces above us was an amazing experience. A single Red-fronted Serin flew in (thank you Noam Shany) paused for a second then disappeared up the valley. Lifer #2
We went back to Kazbegi for lunch and to meet our senior guide Brecht - the director of Batumi Birding and founder of SABUKO - Georgia's leading conservation NGO. He suggested a stroll along the river and straight away things got interesting. Turning around to have a look back at the town I saw a large raptor gliding towards us. Lammergeier! A lifer (#3) and a bird I've wanted to see for years.
The afternoon got better though. As we were working the bushes a superbly coloured male Guldenstadt's Redstart popped up and sat obligingly for us for a few crucial seconds. Lifer #4 for the trip and the first (viewed bird) of the Big Five.
On the way back we noticed a grey passerine picking its way along the cliff face. Wallcreeper, providing us all with the most amazing views.
Our first full day in Kazbegi had surpassed all expectations.
29th and 30th April, 2017
To get a good start on the grouse and snowcocks we were on the road at 5 a.m. We drove up the extremely rough track to Gareti Church high above Kazbegi and continued on up the mountain. Water Pipits and Ring Ouzels were numerous on the snow/grass patches and shrubs. After a few minutes of scoping the hillsides Brecht found our first Caucasian Grouse - a couple of males. Distant record shots but very distinctive. Lifer #5 and 2nd of the Big Five.
Leaving the 4x4 we continued climbing for another 45 minutes or so to try and get better views of another male on our side of the valley. We disturbed this fox and carried on up the slope hoping that the grouse had not decamped because of the predator.
Pausing to catch our breath we spotted four large birds fly up and land near a snow patch. A group of female Caucasian Grouse.
We didn't have much time as we wanted to try for views of snowcock. On the way down we heard the distinctive call of Caucasian Chiffchaff and soon found it singing from the top of a tree. Lovely bird and Lifer #6 (3rd of the Big Five) - so different from collybita Chiffchaffs.
We continued by foot further down the track picking up a flock of Red-fronted Serin,
Treecreeper, Mistle Thrush and a cracking pair of Bullfinch. Male Bullfinch has to be one of the smartest WP birds.
After lunch we pushed up the eastern slopes in search of Caucasian Snowcock. We heard the calls of two males signalling their territories but could not locate them. More obliging were a group of Caucasian Grouse. This male joined a group of three young males.
a distant Golden Eagle, another Lammergeier
and a very distant group of East Caucasian Tur
before we finally caught sight of this male perched on an outcrop. Lifer #7 (4th of the Big Five).
We then spotted the other one.
These terrible photos do not do justice to the moment. I'd love to spend more time with these birds but the weather was turning and the hour late. In the drizzle we retreated back down the slopes deciding to check some shrubs on the way. Surprise of the day was a female Menetries Warbler! Lifer #8. Really pretty little Sylvia and a joy to see it flitting around in the shrubs.
The drizzle turned to rain and showed no sign of abating but I think we were all happy to call it a day. Four of the Big Five under our belts along with Lammergeier and Wallcreeper. But what about the final one - Great Rosefinch? Tomorrow would be our final day in the high Caucasus and our final chance to see this stunning and iconic species.
So, our final morning in Kazbegi. We headed off to a set of bushes that Great Rosefinch like and were checking them when Noam Shany came up. We told him about the Menetries we'd seen yesterday and he told us about a pair of Great Rosefinches he'd seen that morning. He'd even Whatsapp'd me but I'd forgotten to turn on my phone. Muttering expletives to myself we hurried off to the location. After a tense few minutes we finally saw the bird. A truly gorgeous male Great Rosefinch (Lifer #8 and the last of the Big Five) posing on the top of a bush. Few moments have been sweeter.
The rest of the day passed on a high. We left Kazbegi for the long drive to Kakheti, passing Griffon and Black Vultures,
pausing in the mountains to check for Snowfinch (heard but not well enough, and not seen), hearing another Snowcock somewhere up on the mountain slopes, driving on into the lowlands and stopping in a beautiful spring wood. Green Warblers and Red-breasted Flycatchers calling in the tree tops. Spotted Flycatchers adding to the species list. And then through Tbilisi and out onto the beginnings of the rolling steppe lands of eastern Georgia. . . .
We stayed at the basic but comfortable Field School in Dedoplistskaro, a quiet town in the Kakheti region. Our first stop was Lake Kochebi. This rather plain body of water, ringed by fields and the odd derelict building was home to an impressive number of birds: Red-necked Phalaropes,
Black-winged Stilts, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Shelduck (5), Garganey, Corn and Black-headed Buntings,
Whinchat, Stock Dove, Wood Pigeon, Ortolan, Red-throated and Tree Pipits, Red-backed Shrikes, Long-legged Buzzard, Hobby,
Pallid Harrier, Hoopoe, Whitethroat, Quail and Roller.
A very productive couple of hours but the sun was climbing and we had to press on to Vashlovani Nature Reserve. We drove through the rolling steppe,
heavily overgrazed by flocks of sheep, dotted with ancient Nodding Donkeys.
Black-headed Buntings, Crested and Calandra Larks, Tawny Pipits, Spanish Sparrows, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Pallid Harrier, Short-toed and Lesser-spotted Eagles gave a very different flavour to the bird life. Entering the reserve
and its cliff-faced wadis brought yet another selection - Pied Wheatears, Alpine Swifts, Cuckoos, Rock Sparrows, Blue Rock Thrush, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, White-tailed Eagle, Levant and Eurasian Sparrowhawk, while in the undergrowth Eastern Orphean Warblers, Lesser Whitethroats and Nightingales called and sang. Leaving the wadis we drove across the steppe separating Georgia from Azerbaijan. This was lark territory and Calandra,
Crested and Short-toeds flew up from the track every few meters. Isabelline Wheatears stood to attention on nearby rocks
A couple of Rollers and a flock of Bee-eaters added an exotic feel to the landscape. Final bird was a Syrian Woodpecker.
The next day we headed for Taribana, another lake surrounded by steppe. Black-headed Buntings were even more numerous than yesterday, sitting up on shrubs, posts, any vantage point, and singing. Slowing the car down to check a shrub we saw the head of a Corncrake poke up above the track-side grass. It disappeared almost instantly leaving us to follow its progress back into the field by the occasional movement of grass stems. Little Owl, Long-legged Buzzards, Montagu's Harrier and more Calandra Larks and then we arrived at the lake. Three Ruddy Shelduck kept their distance on the water. A Hooded Crow carried a frog across the lake, smashed it about a bit then picked it up flew back across the water and dropped it close to where it'd caught it. Bizarre! A flock of Yellow Wagtails hopped and flew among a small herd of grazing sheep, taking advantage of disturbed insects. A long line of Soviet era pylons stretched across the landscape, one of them holding a large, untidy collection of sticks. Through the scope we could make out that it was an Eastern Imperial Eagle's nest. Interestingly, Spanish Sparrows nest there too - good protection. A pair of cryptic Lesser Short-toed Larks fed in the short grass before one flew up to sing. Driving over a saddle between two hills we came to a stream and some woodland. A Red-breasted Flycatcher hopped around in the low canopy but our attention was caught by the thin piping call of Penduline Tit. Brief views of this really pretty bird in the foliage. Coming out of the woods we met our first real birding challenge - a large reed warbler singing just like a Clamorous and looking like a Clamorous too, even down to a thin bill. Trouble was, Clamorous doesn't get to Georgia. A bit of research later revealed that eastern races of Great Reed Warbler can have thinnish bills and pale vents. The song remains a mystery but the odds are that we saw an eastern race of Great Reed.
Continuing on our way to Chachuna we stopped at a small oil factory where we saw a large flock of Rose-coloured Starlings - once again they amazed me with their colouration.
At Chachuna, while waiting for the army to give us permission to continue we heard Nightingale, Common Rosefinch and Lesser-spotted Woodpecker calling. This was the place for Black Francolin and, with some careful field work, we managed to get fine views of a male as it walked nervously through the open grass.
A Menetries warbler was singing lustily in the shrubs but we could only get the most fleeting view. A Scops Owl called too but also remained hidden.
We drove out towards the Dalis Reservoir on the Iori river where a single Red-necked Phalarope flew by in a migrating flock of White-winged Terns. Great-crested and Black-necked Grebes dotted the water. A White-tailed Eagle glided along the distant shore but a small flock of Lesser Kestrels gave closer views as they hunted along the top of the dam. In a pool on the downstream side of the reservoir a Pygmy Cormorant sat on a branch overlooking a pool. A few ripples on the surface revealed a Beaver swimming across. A Golden Oriole flew between the trees of the gallery forest that grows on either side of the Iori.
Leaving the dam we saw our first Tree Sparrows of the trip.
We took the cross-country route back in search of Pheasant, Georgia's national bird. Stopping at a likely site I caught the distinctive flash of white tips on rusty tail of a Rufous Bush Robin. In Israel I wouldn't give it a second thought but it would be a very good bird for Georgia and it deserved closer attention. Unfortunately our search for it was fruitless but a male Menetries Warbler provided a bonus distraction.
No luck with the pheasants so we pressed on to a set of clearings in the gallery forest. Here a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker gave great views, another Scops Owl called distantly and, as clouds gathered and the rain started we found a male Citrine Wagtail. Stunning bird in any (every) weather.
Our last day in Georgia. Mist and a gentle rain kept the morning light luminous as we headed for the salt lakes near Udabno. They were fairly dry, and bird-free except for some Redshank and Dunlin. Good potential though. Onwards to David Gareja and sandstone gullies. Eastern Black-eared and Finsch's Wheatears quarreled over territories and another Eastern Orphean Warbler showed itself well. Rod suddenly called 'owl!' and looking up we saw the huge shape of an Eagle Owl lift itself off the cliff above us and fly out of sight up the gorge. Wow. It wasn't long before a Western Rock Nuthatch (Lifer #9) flitted along the valley in front of us before alighting on a shrub top about 15 m away. Amazing views!
Chukar, Bee-eaters, Linnets, Yellow Wagtails, Nightingales, one Pied and some Isabelline Wheatears, Blue Rock Thrush, Kestrels, Long-legged and normal Buzzards, Honey Buzzard, Black Vulture and a juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle made up the rest of the bird interest here.
Along the ridge separating Georgia and Azerbaijan
then down to Lake Jandari. We'd been warned that Demoiselle Crane was a bit of a long shot in May so our hopes were not high. As we scanned the lake edge (White-winged and Whiskered Terns,
Little and Great Egrets, Rooks) Brecht called out 'Demoiselles!' Ten of them feeding along the shore. Such elegant, graceful birds and a fitting end to our Georgian trip.
I, for one, will return.
Batumi Birding and the Georgian National Tourism Administration provided a huge amount of material help and logistical support. Thank you, Brecht and Dachi from Batumi Birding, Zviadi for those long hours at the wheel, and Masha for organising transport and accommodation.