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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Georgia: The High Caucasus

Thursday 27 April to Friday 5 May 2017
with Paul French and Giorgi Darchiashvili as leaders

Price: $2,300*

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Great Rosefinches Photo: Paul French

Georgia straddles the borders of Europe and Asia and yet has its own unique character, culture, and ancient history. A land of contrasts, it varies from the cold high mountains of the Greater Caucasus to dry, hot, rocky steppes, where the flora and fauna are more like those of Anatolia and the Middle East.  

There will be much to occupy us on this short tour, but our main purpose will be to see the special birds of the High Caucasus, including Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Black Grouse, Güldenstadt’s Redstart, and Great Rosefinch. By visiting in early spring, we should find all these species at much lower altitudes than later in the year, when long treks are sometimes required to see them. While searching for these birds, we’ll also experience some of the best mountain birding in the Western Palearctic, as we’ll regularly encounter other high-altitude European mountain birds from Lammergeier to Wallcreeper.  

The mountain passes are natural gateways for migrants, and with luck we’ll witness a spectacular passage of raptors as they fly north over the Caucasus Mountains and into Russia. Similarly, passerines funnel through the valleys, so there are always interesting migrants to see and the very real chance of finding something rare and unexpected.  

From the mountains we’ll turn south to an area of arid grassland steppe and striking rocky landscapes to look for a completely different set of birds more reminiscent of the Mediterranean. 

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: Following the early arrival of the Sunbird group, and breakfast, we’ll drive to the magnificent mountains of the Greater Caucasus, and the town of Stepantsminda, nestled in the Tergi Valley below the impressive peak of Kazbegi mountain. Along the way we’ll stop for anything of interest, especially as we begin to climb up through the foothills, where we might encounter Green Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher and perhaps Semi-collared Flycatcher in the oak and beech forest. 

As we drive the spectacular and winding road that leads to the higher passes, we may see our first mountain birds, including tame flocks of Twite, the penicillata race of Shore Lark, Alpine Accentor and White-winged Snowfinch feeding alongside the road. We should also start to see our first raptors, such as Griffon Vulture, Peregrine and the mighty Lammergeier, although the most numerous are likely to be flocks of migrating Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites.

Reaching the town, we’ll check into our new and comfortable hotel perched alongside the river. This is a wonderful setting rich in birds: a variety of migrants are possible in the adjoining park, and circling raptors are viewable from our balconies. As soon as we arrive, we’ll be able to judge where the snow line is and its effect on birding. If, as is usual, the snow is still well down the mountain slopes, we’ll spend the first afternoon searching bushes close to the village for two superb passerines, Güldenstädt’s Redstart and Great Rosefinch. In addition to these we may find the variegatus race of Siberian Stonechat, perhaps the most striking of the Siberian Stonechat group. Night in Stepantsminda. 

Days 3–4: We have two full days to explore the valley and mountain slopes around Stepantsminda. The very shy Caucasian Black Grouse and Caucasian Snowcock inhabit these slopes; Caucasian Snowcock is usually heard before it is seen, its Curlew-like call echoing around the mountains, a truly evocative sound. With this eerie call to guide us, we should find these large birds relatively easily on the slopes. Careful scanning with telescopes of the high alpine meadows should reveal the dark shapes of Caucasian Black Grouse, some perhaps performing their leaping lekking display. Although this is traditionally a very difficult species to get close to, if the snow line is low and if we use telescopes, we could get good views. We’ll search as well for the enchanting Wallcreeper, which lives on sheer rock faces but can easily be found much lower down. Red-billed and Alpine Choughs will be wheeling overhead, and Ring Ouzel, Water Pipit, Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Twite, and flocks of Red-fronted Serin will be feeding on the grassy slopes or among the boulders.    

In addition to these breeding birds, the Tergi Valley is a natural flyway for migrants. There are bound to be good numbers of Ortolan Buntings in the fields, while the bushes can hold Caucasian Chiffchaffs mingling with Common Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers. Red-throated Pipits will also be passing through, some in smart spring plumage, as are the migrant Bluethroats and Barred Warblers. At this time of year many species are possible, adding an exciting edge to our birding—we could bump into a Wryneck busy feeding on ants or a group of Yellow Wagtails of various races. Small stands of trees could hold anything from Scops Owl to Collared and Semi-Collared Flycatchers. There will also be some mammals to search for, including East Caucasian Taur (an endemic wild goat) and Chamois, and a sighting of Wolf or Brown Bear is possible.  

We are likely to have one more treat in store. Sandwiched between the Black and Caspian Seas, Georgia is overflown by vast numbers of raptors heading north each spring. There are certain to be some raptors moving at any time, but with the right weather the numbers could increase to hundreds of birds each day. Steppe Buzzards are likely to be the most common, but Montagu’s, Pallid, and Marsh Harriers and the occasional Steppe Eagle, Red-footed Falcon, and Goshawk are all possible. Nights in Stepantsminda. 

Day 5: After a final morning around Stepantsminda, we’ll drive back to Tbilisi, stopping along the way to look for Dippers and Kingfishers at a roadside location and to search the woodlands for Black Woodpecker and the distinctive Caucasian race of Common Redstart, while a large reservoir should be holding some Armenian Gulls. Night in Tbilisi. 

Days 6–7: Leaving Tbilisi once more, we’ll drive southeast to Chachuna. This dry, almost Mediterranean landscape will be in sharp contrast to the mountains we have previously visited. Chachuna is part of the Iori Upland, a region of low hills cut with many gorges and shallow valleys that dissolve into open plains. This is good country for raptors: Eastern Imperial, Steppe, and Booted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard, Egyptian, Black, and Eurasian Griffon Vultures, Short-toed Eagle, and Saker Falcon are all possible. Chukars scurry over the hills in small coveys, while Black Francolins are more secretive. Hoopoes live here, and we may see European Bee-eaters or gaudy Rollers freshly arrived from Africa, or Crag Martins zipping around the rock faces. 

The wide-open spaces of the grassy steppes are a great place for wildlife, and we’ll be greeted by lots of birds, including Isabelline Wheatear and Crested, Short-toed, and Calandra Larks, and possibly Lesser Short-toed Lark as well. Nearby rocky escarpments are home to Western Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush, Pied and Black-eared Wheatears, Black-headed, Ortolan, and Rock Buntings, and Spanish and Rock Sparrows. One bird that should be easy to find is Ménétries’s Warbler, as it is a common breeding bird in this area and there should be plenty of singing males on territory at the time of our visit. Eastern Orphean Warbler also breeds here. Nights in Chachuna. 

Day 8: Today we’ll return to Tbilisi, stopping at any sights that look promising and will pay particular attention to the open steppe to search for a late wintering Little Bustard or a passage Demoiselle Crane. If time permits, we may venture in to the steppes surrounding David Gareja and visit a large freshwater lake on the Azerbaijan border. Here, Pygmy Cormorants are common and a host of other water birds and waders are possible, including Terek Sandpiper and Whiskered and White-winged Terns.

Arriving back at the capital, we’ll have dinner at a local restaurant. Legend holds that Georgia is where wine was first produced, and Georgians are rightly very proud of their wines. We’ll have the chance to sample some of these vintages as well as some wonderful local food. Night in Tbilisi. 

Day 9: The tour concludes this morning in Tbilisi.

Updated: 15 September 2015

Prices

  • 2017 Tour Price : $2,300
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $260
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Notes

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 4% 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.