A Honey Buzzard cruises along the edge of the Black Sea. Photo: Paul French
Georgia in autumn is a birding secret that needs sharing. We favor beginning on the impressive Javakheti Plateau, a high-altitude area of gorges, farmland, steppe, and lakes populated by raptors possibly including Lammergier and vast numbers of waterbirds, followed by a stretch of the old Silk Road leading into the mighty Lesser Caucasus to search for enigmatic species such as Caspian Snowcock at a remarkably accessible site, and Krüper’s Nuthatch.
We’ll continue westward, descending through the Chorokhi Valley to Batumi, a port town nestled in the highly scenic southwest corner of the country between the Black Sea and the Lesser Caucasus. Every autumn along this narrow coastal strip over one million raptors and multitudes of other migrants, including thousands of Eurasian Bee-eaters, funnel through on their annual migration from the vast forests and steppes of Eurasia to their wintering grounds in Africa. Batumi is simply an amazing place to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of migration in full flow as up to 100,000 birds pass right over us. A river delta just south of Batumi will provide plenty of interest too: many passerines use the coast as a flyway, and the combination of beach, marshes, and scrubland is attractive to a wide variety of species.
Day 1: The tour begins with the departure of the Sunbird group on an overnight flight from London to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. WINGS participants traveling directly to Tbilisi should arrive no later than this evening (see Note **, below).
Day 2: The Sunbird group will arrive in Tbilisi early this morning. After a late breakfast at our hotel, the combined group will set out on a drive to an impressive gorge on the edge of the Javakheti Plateau that holds the unique Vardzia cave town, a 12th-century settlement carved into the cliff face above the Mtkvari River. This rocky area is home to a selection of eastern Mediterranean species, and we should find birds such as Rock Nuthatch, Chukar, Crag Martin, Black-eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, and Rock Sparrow, as well as Griffon and Egyptian Vultures and perhaps the mighty Lammergeier. Night in Vardzia.
Day 3: On the vast Javakheti Plateau we’ll explore lakes and steppe that hold an array of breeding birds as well as being a magnet for migrants. Huge numbers of ducks can be present, along with good numbers of marsh terns. Velvet Scoters breed here at their most southerly and isolated outpost, and both White and Dalmatian Pelicans can be found. We’ll also be looking for the distinctive and near endemic breeding race of Common Crane, as well as for migrant passerines resting in the isolated bushes and trees. The whole plateau can be alive with raptors, and we should be treated to extended views of Steppe Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, and three species of harrier among others. Night in Vardzia.
Day 4: Moving away from the plateau, we’ll drive to the Zekari Pass, high in the northern reaches of the Lesser Caucasus. Formerly a bus route linking two towns, the road has now degraded to the point that we’ll need four-wheel-drive vehicles to reach the high pass. We’ll leave our bags at our hotel and change over to more suitable vehicles before ascending through pine forest that holds White-throated Dipper and Black, White-backed, and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers. Eventually we’ll emerge into seasonal grasslands and alpine meadows, where Water Pipits are common and where we’ll look at the chiffchaffs with interest, as Caucasian Chiffchaff can be numerous. However, the really special bird is Caspian Snowcock, restricted to the highest mountains of the Lesser Caucasus from Turkey through to Iran and not an easy bird to find anywhere. By using telescopes to scan the ridges we hope for a sighting … and we may also be treated to further raptor migration. Night in Akhalcikhe.
Day 5: On our final day in the Lesser Caucasus we’ll head west and over the Goderzi Pass before descending into the subtropical Adjara region and the coastal resort of Batumi. The scenery is stunning, and we’ll again drive through superb woodlands on the higher slopes of the mountains. We’ll make several stops along the way to search for the special birds of the area, including Krüper’s Nuthatch and Red-fronted Serin, plus whatever woodland birds may have eluded us so far. Night in Batumi.
Days 6–8: Batumi—the name is becoming synonymous with huge numbers of migrating raptors as well as a range of other passage species. This tour is timed to coincide with the main migration period of Honey Buzzards, along with large numbers of many other species, and we’ll spend time at one or both of the raptor count stations. Our 2014 tour experienced one of the great days in Batumi’s raptor migration history with more than 88,000 Honey Buzzards, 3000-plus Black Kites, 178 Booted Eagles, and 128 Marsh Harriers, plus smaller numbers of Short-toed and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawk, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers, and 150 European Rollers. We can’t expect a day like that every year, but there will be thousands of birds, including the above-mentioned of course but also Crested Honey Buzzard (Batumi is one of the most reliable single sites for this species in the Western Palearctic), White-tailed Eagle, Goshawk, Red-footed Falcon, and Lesser Kestrel, as well as flocks of passerines such as Yellow Wagtails, Ortolan Buntings, and many thousands of European Bee-eaters. The forests and gardens here are home to the more easily heard than seen Green Warbler, the samamisicus race of Common Redstart, and the elusive lilfordi race of White-backed Woodpecker. The migration is weather dependent, and we’ll respond quickly to favorable weather to experience this, a true spectacle of nature.
Away from the count station we’ll explore the Chorokhi Delta and the scrubby areas around Batumi. This area of coastal scrub and marsh is a haven for migrants, and on the small estuary we can hope to see Broad-billed and perhaps Terek Sandpipers while White-winged Black, Whiskered, Little, Caspian, and Gull-billed Terns compete for our attention with a swarm of Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls on the sandbars. The marshes could hold Spotted, Little, and Baillon’s Crakes, “Grey-headed” Purple Swamphen, and a selection of warblers. The scrubland should be full of eastern migrants such as Red-backed Shrike, Barred, Savi’s, and River Warblers, Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, Siberian Stonechat, Thrush Nightingale, Hoopoe, Short-toed Lark, and many more. Offshore, Yelkouan Shearwaters pass close by, and we may be lucky enough to see migrants such as Eurasian Nightjar or even a Scops Owl coming in off the Black Sea. Almost anything is possible! Nights in Batumi.
Day 9: The tour concludes this morning in Batumi.
Updated: 10 May 2016
- 2017 Tour Price : $2,350
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $240
This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Information on Sunbird and an explanation of Sunbird tour pricing can be found here.
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
** Accommodation the night of Day 1 and transfers from and to the airport as needed are included in the tour cost for WINGS participants. Meals are not included until you join the Sunbird group arriving on Day 2.
Note: Participants may be able to connect with the Sunbird UK group in Istanbul; the Turkish Airlines flights from London stop in Istanbul on the way to and from Tbilisi. Participants who would like to explore this option should see here.
Maximum group size 10 with two leaders. Both leaders will accompany the group irrespective of group size.