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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Georgia: The High Caucasus

2015 Tour Narrative

The early morning flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi passed through crystal clear skies, providing simply unparalleled views of the snow covered Lesser Caucasus of southern Georgia, northern Turkey and Armenia. The snow cover was greater than any we had experienced in all our years of doing the tour, and despite the intense beauty of the landscape, the extensive snow would undoubtedly affect migration.

Driving north from Tbilisi, we stopped for lunch in the leafy surroundings of Ananuri. As feared, a lack of migrants was immediately apparent, although we still managed a samamisicus Redstart. Continuing up the road towards the Jvari pass, large numbers of lorries parked along the road suggested that the pass was perhaps not in an ideal state for traversing, but we soldiered on and were rewarded by stunning views across the snowfields and our first Alpine and Red-billed Choughs. Descending into the Tergi river valley, it was apparent that the snowline was probably perfect for our birding needs. Just low enough to push the alpine species into the valley, but high enough that there were large areas of open ground for migrants. Our first stop was at our favoured area for Güldenst?dt’s Redstart, and despite a worrying absence at first, we then found three birds showing nicely for us.

After a good night’s rest, we went out before breakfast to try for our second major target; the Caucasian Snowcock. Ascending to the lower reaches of the mountains, the eerie and bubbling calls of Snowcocks soon cascaded down the mountain. While we were searching the rocky slopes for them, we found six glossy Caucasian Black Grouse, lekking on the high grassy slopes. With one male leaping up and down like a clockwork toy, we were being thoroughly entertained by this when the first of three Caucasian Snowcocks was found. Excellent ‘scope views were had of these large game birds, and the delicate markings that are usually so subtle at distance could be seen in all their technicolour glory. As if this wasn’t enough, we soon discovered several Caucasian Great Rosefinches in the buckthorns next to us. Their unobtrusive calls gave them away, and we soon had excellent views of up to 12 of these large, handsome finches. This highly localised and range-restricted form has now been seen on every one of our tours, and is always a highlight.

With clear blue skies and sparkling white snowfields, the scenery was simply stunning. But breakfast was calling, so we tore ourselves away and had a filling Georgian breakfast back at the hotel. The rest of the morning was spent strolling down along the buckthorn looking for migrants, with limited success. A nice flock of Yellow Wagtails included several different races, but the deep snow to the lands south of Georgia combined with the wonderfully clear blue skies had undoubtedly put a dampener on migration. Whatever was getting through into Georgia was taking advantage of good conditions to continue north, so we continued south into the Truso valley where we had lunch and were treated to a pair of sky-dancing Golden Eagles, a couple of Lammergeiers quartering the mountainsides and 10 Alpine Chamois picking their way delicately across the snow and rocky slopes. We also found our first Horned (or Shore) Larks of the trip, these being of the striking white-faced and cinnamon-naped penicillata form. A recent paper recommended splitting the Horned Lark complex into several species, and this is one of four forms in the Western Palearctic that seem to warrant specific status. Alongside them, some wonderfully pink-rumped brevirostris Twite were mixed in with the ubiquitous Water Pipits, while Black Redstarts and Ring Ouzels completed the ornithological picture around the village.

Moving further up towards the Jvari pass, we stopped at a couple of places we know to search for two of the hardest specialities to find; Snowfinch and Alpine Accentor. The extensive snow cover should have made things easier, but it still took us a while to locate a Snowfinch on the slopes above us, along with a pair of Alpine Accentors. After having our fill of these, and being treated to the strange spectacle of a pair of Red-billed Choughs attacking a pair of Raven, we headed back for dinner, taking in the impressive spectacle of a loose flock of 14 Güldenst?dt’s Redstarts. 

The following day followed a similar itinerary. We had less luck in seeing Snowcocks, even though their calls were seemingly all around, but the Caucasian Black Grouse showed nicely again and we had the unexpected bonus of a very high flying Wallcreeper. After breakfast we headed into the scenic Gveleti valley, where Griffons fly high and Dippers zip along the stream. After much searching, we also eventually found the endemic wild goat of the mountains, when three East Caucasian Taur gave themselves up, high in the alpine zone. Thank goodness for high powered scopes! A rather frustrating afternoon followed, as we searched for the final speciality that eluded us. Caucasian Mountain Chiffchaff is normally easy in certain spots, but this year they had just simply not arrived. We heard at least one bird but just couldn’t dig it out, and it quickly went silent. Compensation was provided by a very showy Wallcreeper that flew in to the rock face next to us and proceeded to sit in full view and preen itself for five minutes!

Not to be outdone, we returned to the buckthorn bushes the following morning and finally had brief views of a Caucasian Chiffchaff. At this point the drizzle turned to rain, then to heavy snow. It was time to run for the lowlands! Heading towards the Jvari pass, the snow became much heavier. Lorries were parked up everywhere waiting for it to clear, and it was becoming a concern that we wouldn’t actually make it. We did make it however, thanks to the skills of our driver in near white-out conditions. The drive down the other side was less eventful, and we stopped for lunch at Ananuri again, taking in the old church and its breeding assemblage of samamisicus Redstarts, Red-backed Shrikes and Little Ringed Plovers. After lunch, we managed to locate a single male Semi-collared Flycatcher, so we were in high spirits as we headed towards Tbilisi. Further stops added a few species, including the much wanted Green Warbler, and we arrived in Tbilisi in time for an excellent meal at a local restaurant.

The drive to Chachuna is not a long one, but was interspersed with a couple of birding spots. The small area of woodland we found last year once again proved itself popular as we found Golden Oriole, Hawfinch, singing Scops Owl, three Common Rosefinch, Green Warbler and a couple of Persian Squirrels! Our picnic lunch spot produced three Penduline Tits completely out of context in the orchard and miles from water and showy Barred Warbler and Nightingale, and the pace continued as we drove over the steppes towards Chachuna. Nesting Hoopoes, a pair of Pied Wheatears, a Little Owl, a young Pallid Harrier and several Montagu’s Harriers, an Eastern Imperial Eagle, Black Vultures, Rollers, Calandra Larks and many more all vied for our attention as we made our way slowly towards the ranch.

The following day once again lived up to the reputation that I always give Chachuna. We spent the early morning birding the dam and riparian woodland and scrub below it, easily seeing things like Black Francolin, Black-headed Buntings, Common Nightingales and Ménétries’s, Eastern Olivaceous and Eastern Orphean Warblers. The colony of Lesser Kestrels put on a good show for us, and most unexpected was the apparent migration of at least 20 Golden Orioles, coming out of the woodland in small groups before heading high to the west. A faint ‘electric croak’ drew our attention to the north east, where a flock of 35 Demoiselle Cranes were approaching us. To our absolute delight, they decided to turn and start to spiral right over us, before disappearing off to the south west. I have no idea why they were flying in the wrong direction, but I’m grateful that they chose those moments to do so. The afternoon was spent at a site we go to for Rock Nuthatch, and we watched the pair bringing food for their chicks while Black and Griffon Vultures eyed us up and Short-toed Larks and Isabelline Wheatears filled the air with song. An unexpected highlight came at the end of the day. Scanning the reservoir, we heard the distinctive call of a male Pheasant, and eventually three of them gave themselves up to us. It might seem strange, but these birds were one of the rarest birds were saw all week. Genuinely wild Common Pheasant is rare, declining and vary restricted in the Western Palearctic, and the riparian woodlands of Georgia and Azerbaijan are pretty much the only places for it now.

After an early breakfast on our last day, we drove out to a nesting site for Saker. Among the numerous highlights, new for the tour list was a Nightjar we found at day roost and had incredible views of. The Saker appeared on cue, but it was the male Levant Sparrowhawk that flew within a few feet over our heads that drew the most gasps. With further views of Bee-eaters, Rollers and Calandra larks on the way out, plus a small flock of three Lesser Spotted Eagles and the usual smorgasbord of three shrike species, 25 Griffon Vultures and seven Black Vultures sat by the track, four Long-legged Buzzards and a brief flock of 12 Rose-coloured Starlings, the drive back to Tbilisi was certainly not dull. After dinner in a rather plush restaurant with stunning views overlooking the old city and river Mtkvari, it was time to say our goodbyes and head for the airport. A truly memorable trip.

Updated: May 2015