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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Georgia in Autumn: Migration Along the Black Sea

2016 Narrative

After a refreshing coffee and breakfast at a Tbilisi hotel, we started the climb up onto the Javakheti plateau and our first birds of the trip rapidly appeared. Steppe Buzzards were a near constant companion along the drive, but a fortuitous stop at the Tsalka reservoir really rewarded us. A Lammergeier soared high over us while a Thrush Nightingale and Common Rosefinch reminded us that migrants can appear anywhere.  The lake was alive with birds, and we added a number of waders including a couple of nice Broad-billed Sandpipers, upwards of 50 Little Stints and many Ruff, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, as well as five Black Storks. Our first lunch in Georgia was a hearty affair and set the tone for the rest of the trip, with huge offerings of the local Kachapuri, salads, cheese and kebabs being washed down with the occasional beer. The afternoon was spent birding Madatapa lake, where we enjoyed great views of Dalmatian Pelicans and a group of Yellow Wagtails, as well as sifting through the vast flocks of ducks to see Black-necked Grebe and many Garganey. At least three Steppe Eagles made it onto the list, and we also enjoyed some impressive looks at around 25 Lesser Grey Shrikes, 10 Red-backed Shrikes and three Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes.

Moving off the plateau into the Vardsia Gorge and our hotel for two nights, we were impressed by the idyllic location and ample vineyards among the gardens. Some homemade wine washed down the excellent food, and it was off to a well-deserved first night’s rest.

Up early, we were serenaded by calling Rock Nuthatch, and enjoyed Rock Buntings and the identification challenge posed by young Black-eared Wheatears, while a couple of Caucasian Mountain Chiffchaffs entertained us in the hotel gardens. Moving up onto the plateau again, we stopped briefly at Khertsivi fortress and were rewarded with a brief Red-fronted Serin, as well as the more expected Blue Rock Thrush. Karsakhi and Khanchali lakes were the main targets for the day, and we were suitably impressed by the sheer number of birds on Khanchali. Both White and Dalmatian Pelicans were present, and the number of waterbirds was staggering. Estimates included over 1000 White-winged Black Terns, but the highlight for many were the eight stately archibaldi Common Cranes picking their way around the marshes. Only described as a separate race in 2008, this distinctive form is very rare and highly localised.

Our third day saw us depart early from Vardsia and head north-west to the northern reaches of the Lesser Caucasus and the Zekari Pass. Driving up through dense woodlands, we emerged into the summer pastures of the high mountains at around 2000 meters, with stunning views across the National Park. Georgia is blessed with a vast amount of heavily forested mountains, and this area is no exception. However, our target for the day was to be found at an even higher altitude. Climbing still further, we eventually found a pair of Caspian Snowcocks performing very admirably for the array of scopes trained on them, while about 25 Montagu’s Harriers gave superb views as they migrated past and a flock of 60 Alpine Choughs wheeled distantly overhead. Less expected was the group of Kazakh tourists that wanted us to pose for photos with them! After yet another evening of excellent food in a local restaurant, we embarked on the journey over the Goderzi Pass and down into the subtropical province of Adjara, home of Batumi. The journey wound through spectacular scenery amid deep forested valleys and summer villages. Stopping for a rest amid the forest, we had excellent views of a male Kruper’s Nuthatch that descended to eye level to inspect us, but a Green Warbler was all too brief for most.

Arriving into Batumi, we went straight to a small marsh area on the southern edge of the city. A showy Spotted Crake was a highlight, but the great views of Broad-billed Sandpiper on a small marshy puddle along with three Citrine Wagtails were also appreciated. With species such as Thrush Nightingale and Barred Warbler also making an appearance, it was obvious that we had arrived in a migration hotspot. The following day was a big one, as we drove up to the raptor station at Sakhalvasho. Over the course of the day, one of nature’s true spectacles unfolded around us as around 20,000 Honey Buzzards flew by in a seemingly neverending stream. Upwards of 200 Black Kites were also counted, along with about 30 Montagu’s Harriers, 25 Levant Sparrowhawks, 10 Booted Eagles and two Steppe Eagles, all to a constant musical accompaniment of calling Bee-eaters migrating past us and one flock of nine Rollers. We spent the late afternoon back at the airport marsh, where my migrants were in order and the Spotted Crake count increased to two. A Yelkouan Shearwater was found following a small fishing boat close inshore and our mettle was tested by the large flocks of Yellow-legged Gulls that are present here.

The morning of the 1st dawned with heavy skies and rain, but we persevered and headed out for the Chorokhi delta area. Just south of the city, this can be a magnet for migrants. After a couple of hours, we were thoroughly drenched, and a new plan was needed. We’d still managed to dig out some great birds, such as 28 migrating Night Herons, a Great Reed Warbler, Barred Warbler and a couple of Golden Orioles, but the skies were now verging on apocalyptical and there is only so much enthusiasm for birding in heavy rain. So we headed back to the hotel for a late breakfast, then moved north along the coast to the area around the town of Poti. The Paliastomi lake empties into the Black Sea here, and the narrow channel is a magnet for various things. We managed five species of terns, including two superb Caspians, a juvenile Arctic Skua careening down the beach, a wonderful Terek Sandpiper along the shoreline and a flock of Slender-billed Gulls. Moving inland slightly to the lake, a “flock” of 9 Whinchats entertained, as did two rather inquisitive Dice Snakes!

Our final day was epic. We started at dawn in the Batumi harbour area, where a few trees, manicured hedgerows and lawns produced some mouth-watering migrants. At least 15 Red-backed Shrikes competed for attention with a River Warbler, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, two Great Reed Warblers and five Barred Warblers, while two Nightjars fresh in off the sea performed spectacularly well. From here it was back to the hotel for a swift breakfast, before heading back up to the raptor station for the rest of the day. Words struggle to describe the spectacle of migrating raptors, but what unfolded in front of us today was truly epic. Over 50,000 Honey Buzzards went through in what could only be described as a constant river of raptors, snaking its way across the sky. Sometimes splitting, then joining together again, there was no let-up in birds passing us for the whole day. Among them, we even managed to pick out the season’s first Crested Honey Buzzard, a seriously good achievement! Along with the Honeys, we estimated around 500 Black Kites, 50 Montagu’s Harriers, a single Pallid Harrier, 100 Levant Sparrowhawks, 100 Booted Eagles, a juvenile White-tailed Eagle and four Ospreys. Along with this, the group identified a Marsh Warbler behind the count area and a Citrine Wagtail fed around the pond up there for a while. A great end to a great trip!

- Paul French 

Updated: October 2016