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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Georgia: The High Caucasus

2018 Narrative

The overnight flights from the UK to Tbilisi are never kind on sleep, but the longer connection from Munich this time at least allowed a few hours rest before we hit the streets running. Or rather, hit the first coffee bar we could find to recuperate for a little while. Feeling slightly refreshed, we set off for the Greater Caucasus, travelling north along the Georgian Military Highway that connects the centre of Georgia and Tbilisi to Russia. The foothills of the Greater Caucasus are cloaked in thick forests, bright green at this time of year with newly sprouted leaves. Our first stop was to look for Semi-collared Flycatcher in a spot that always seems reliable for them, and after a very brief sighting it gave us a bit of a run-around. The tape was ineffectual, and the bird remained stubbornly always a few trees out of view, but at least it was singing regularly. Eventually, persistence paid off and it appeared in a tree near to us, finally allowing reasonable views.

Continuing higher, we then stopped off at the friendship memorial near the ski resort of Gudauri, where Alpine and Red-billed Choughs entertained us, but the highlights were a lovely Wallcreeper and a pair of Alpine Accentors on the cliffs below the memorial, and several Alpine Swifts cruising around giving excellent views. Seven years ago this memorial was frequented just by occasional travellers drinking a toast to friends, but now there is a thriving tourist scene of trinket sellers and paragliders! The birds don’t seem to mind however, indeed if anything Wallcreeper and Alpine Accentor have become more reliable here.  Moving on and over the Jvari pass, we descended into the Kazbegi valley, and after a fine lunch in Arsha we had a well-earned siesta in our hotel for a couple of hours. We finished the day by exploring the town parks for migrants, finding Tree Pipit and a pair of nesting Treecreepers.

The next morning dawned with fine weather again, and we made our way up to the base of Mt. Kuro, our preferred snowcock and grouse viewing area. After only a few minutes of scanning, a male Caucasian Snowcock came into view, high up on the rocky slopes. Despite the distance, good scope views could be had as it fed in the open on a scree slope for what seemed an age. Meanwhile, two male Caucasian Black Grouse were picked out on the lower slopes among the tussock grass and dwarf rhododendrons, and they put on a bit of action for us, although they did spend most of their time just admiring the view! Over the next two days we explored the area thoroughly, and despite getting great views of Mountain Chiffchaff, the fine sunny weather sadly put paid to any chance of either Great Rosefinch or Güldenst?dt’s Redstart.

We enjoyed the local races of Twite and Horned Lark, and a flock of Alpine Accentors high up on the scree slopes above Stepantsminda reflected the effort put in for the missing species. Along the streams, caucasicus Dippers fed, and a stunning Lammergeier soared over its nesting area. The fine weather also resulted in few migrants, but an Isabelline Wheatear was unusual, a couple of Red-breasted Flycatchers remained elusive and even the local samamisicus Common Redstarts were in very short supply. Three Rock Buntings finally showed well for us, and we also enjoyed further good views of the Caucasian Snowcocks and Black Grouse, this time with females of both thrown in for good measure. Raptor migration was limited, but a Lesser Spotted Eagle was unusual for here, and a pair of Golden Eagles cruised along a hillside for us. The journey back to Tbilisi was punctuated by a long stop at the Tbilisi Reservoir, a large lake on the edge of the city. Here, around 270 Armenian Gulls were still present, presumably just waiting for the signal to fly into the highlands of southern Georgia or Armenia.

After a night in the city and a leisurely breakfast, we left Tbilisi, bound for the open semi-steppe habitats of Chachuna. Our first stop was at a small wooded grove we found a few years ago, and here we had good views of Green Warbler as it came in to check us out, excellent and prolonged views of a stunning male Golden Oriole as it bashed the life out of a large beetle and equally fine looks at a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Moving on to our picnic lunch spot, distant Montagu’s Harriers sky-danced and our first of many (oh, so many!) Corn Buntings jangled around us. A briefly singing Common Rosefinch seemed to continue on its way before being seen by any of us. The 37km track to Chachuna is not in the greatest state of repair but is perfectly passable with care and is an excellent birding area in its own right. Rolling hills and open farmland gradually give way to more steppe-like habitats, and we had only just started along it when a Lesser Spotted Eagle treated us to extended views of it soaring and hanging in the air, before dropping onto unseen prey. A Blue Rock Thrush on the outcrops was distant, but the Ortolans that graced the roadside trees were scope-filling. Soon, Black-headed Bunting was in the bag with a couple of fine males singing along the roadside, and the Corn Bunting count got to around 50. A pair of roadside Rollers, a singing Hoopoe, many Crested Larks and a brief Bee-eater gave a very Mediterranean feel, and the Little Owl that flushed from the roadside gave great scope views from its chosen bush, staring at us with wide yellow eyes. Arriving at our accommodation for the next two nights, we had a quick look around the ranch and enjoyed a small flock of Rose-coloured Starlings, then after dinner had a stroll around the buildings and nearby pistachio trees and managed to track down one of the several singing Scops Owls in the vicinity. Meanwhile, a distant Nightjar churred and a pack of Golden Jackals set the local dogs off in a cacophony of howls and barks.

A pre-breakfast stroll out to and below the dam revealed a fine cast of target birds. Ménétries’s Warbler was easily found, a couple of Nightingales engaged in a full-on singing fight, Red-backed Shrikes graced the bush tops, two pairs of Black-eared Wheatears gave good views, further flocks of Rose-coloured Starlings migrated past and a Syrian Woodpecker skulked low down in a tamarisk.

Out on the reservoir, 46 White-winged Black Terns and a flock of 15 Gull-billed Terns sparkled over the water, while two pairs of Lesser Kestrel were nesting in the abandoned control tower. We explored the steppe and Badlands area beyond the reservoir for the rest of the day, with highlights including a Black Francolin calling from atop an old concrete telegraph pole, a food carrying but surprisingly elusive pair of Western Rock Nuthatches, some intriguing Black-eared and Pied Wheatears, several newly fledged family parties of Isabelline Wheatear all standing alert outside their nesting burrows, a pair of Saker Falcons patrolling their new nesting cliff, a very showy Eastern Orphean Warbler and, perhaps most unexpected, a Levantine Viper being escorted off the track by a pair of Crested Larks! We watched this gorgeous snake for several minutes as it glided from one rodent burrow to the next, checking each one in turn for signs of prey, before finally sliding into a deep hole and disappearing.

All this in addition to about 10 pairs of incredibly blue Rollers and a few newly arrived kaleidoscopic Bee-eaters. We were all serenaded by Scops Owls again that night but left them to it.  Our final morning was spent on the dam, looking out over the riverine woodland, reedy pools and scrub. Four Golden Orioles took flight and migrated past us, a flock of small gulls on the reservoir proved to be a mixed one of Slender-billed and Black-headed Gulls and a lovely adult Armenian Gull patrolled up and down the dam for us. Despite the flow of birds, it was soon time to leave, and we travelled back along the track to Dedoplistskaro for a fine lunch, and then onwards to Tbilisi, despite our bus losing 1st and reverse gears somewhere along the track from Chachuna! For our final evening meal, it’s traditional for the group to go to a local restaurant and enjoy not only the best food that Tbilisi has to offer, but also some local dancing and singing. And that, as they say, was that.

 -        Paul French

Created: 06 June 2018