Once again, a customized birding trip to Georgia proved to be bullseye! The experience turned out to be just unforgettable... The couleur locale, unspoiled landscapes, hospitality, a hint of Rock'n Roll and gorgeous sightings of fauna and flora... Participant Arthur wrote a short piece about it!
A birding trip to Georgia always stood high on the wishlist for my birding dad Wim and me (Arthur Geilvoet). Georgia but The Caucasus in particular are home to an astonishing number of mouthwatering bird species. Since the tv-show 'In de ban van de Condor' got broadcasted on Belgian and Dutch television, Georgia suddenly became a hot destination which made my only rarely birding brother Stefan (a fanatique photographer though) and nephew Martin join us on this expedition. It therefore became a real family business. We asked STARLING tours to come up with an itinerary especially designed for us. With six full days we chose The Causasus, combined with the eastern steppes. Sadly Batumi didn't fit in our schedule but this produced a good reason to return with the purpose of admiring the famous raptor migration!
28 - 30 april: Stepantsminda (Kazbegi), High Caucasus
With quite a delay in both Amsterdam and Istanbul, it was well after midnight when we reached our guesthoue in Tbilisi, the hipster capital of Georgia. After a night that was way too short, our guide Brecht De Meulenaer from STARLING was eager to drive us all the way to Stepantsminda (Kazbegi). Along the road, the first common species are noted, including the local subspecies of Eurasian Jay that looks completely different with its white face and black cap. But the real deal only starts to show itself at the monument near the Jvari pass. Kettles of raptors pass at eye level, mainly Steppe and Honey Buzzard. An immature Steppe Eagle is a nice bonus. This place also yields the first parties of Red-fronted Serin, a few Ring Ouzels (of the local subspecies with a lot of white in the wings) and the first Wallcreeper. During these three days in the mountains, we often see this species with at least 5 different individuals noted, including one VERY confiding bird. A real climax of this trip!
Can't wait when you read about all these awesome sightings? Do you want to discover Georgia yourself? There's still a few spots left on our spring birding trip to Batumi and the Caucasus. Click here for more info.
Sadly, the weather plays tricks on us in Stepantsminda... The visibility is restricted in the higher parts due to the low clouds. Especially for Caucasian Snowcock and Caucasian Black Grouse, that's problematic. Therefore, we first bet on the three other specialties of this area: Güldenstädt's Redstart, Great Rosefinch and Caucasian Chiffchaff. The Güldenstädt's Redstart is an easy catch in the buckthorn bushes, close to our stay. In the valley, we finally have multiple observations of the males in particular. The Caucasian Chiffchaff can be found in the same habitat. The Great Rosefinch takes a bit more of an effort and makes us crawl up the slope. It turns out to be a good idea though, with a flock of no less than 50 individuals seen! With the telescope, the brick-red males are absolutely gorgeous. Near the church of Gergeti, we're very lucky when the sky opens up for a moment and Brecht discovers a female Caucasian Black Grouse within minutes. With the telescope I manage to locate it very quickly. But when the next one wants to have a look, the clouds close in on us again and the bird gets absorbed by the grey mass... Our patience is tested a lot and only after almost an hour the sky opens again and we're able to relocate the bird... What a relief!
In the grey, rainy weather that afflicts the first two days, we're entertained with a lot of different species. Highlights include typical mountain species as Lammergeier, some Dippers (as well in the village), a Green Warbler, Griffon Vultures, Golden Eagle, Alpine Chough, Red-billed Chough, Rock Bunting, Black Redstart (subspecies ochruros) and a lot of Water Pipits (subsp. coutelli). Since we're in the middle of the migration season, species as Northern Wheatear, Whinchat, Ortolan Bunting, Nightingale, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Cuckoo, Red-throated Pipit and Short-toed Lark are common.
Our last morning is exciting. If the clouds don't move, we can forget about the Caucasian Snowcock. Luckily, the weather gods were favorable and when the sun is only just appearing from behind the horizon, we're already scanning the slopes east of Stepantsminda. Once again, the sharp eyes of Brecht are useful when he discovers a Caucasian Snowcock after just minutes of scanning! We manage to obtain multiple observations of this bird: calling, flying, running,... Always far away however. We also manage to find two males Caucasian Black Grouse on the lower situated slopes. A nice sighting is that of a party of East-Caucasian Turs, an endangered species of ibex. When leaving Stepantsminda we continue our search for a few missing mountain species. Close to the Jvari Pass we hit jackpot again when short after each other we manage to locate a flock of Turkish Twites, a nice male White-winged Snowfinch and two Caucasian Horned Larks.
30 april - 4 may: eastern steppes and hills of Georgia
From Stepantsminda we drive southwards, passing the outskirts of Tbilisi. Near lake Janari, the species list gets thickened with species as Armenian Gull, Slender-billed Gull, White-winged Tern, Pigmy Cormorant, Kingfisher, Glossy Ibis and Squacco Heron. In the surrounding area we see our first Bee-eaters, Rollers and Hoopoe's. The vast steppes are packed with birds and it takes a while before we're used to how common species like Black-headed Bunting, Crested Lark, Calandra Lark, Isabelline Wheatear and Corn Bunting are.
Our next stop is the monastry of David Gareji. In the monastry itself, species as Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Sparrow are breeding. The hike to the top yields two Eastern Imperial Eagles, Egyptian Vultures, Griffon Vultures, a male Pallid Harrier, Chukar Partridge, Green Warbler, Siberian Stonechat, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear and Pied Wheatear. Close near our accomodation in Dedoplitskaro we get entertained by two Eurasian Scops Owls. They're singing from some trees in the middle of the village next to a busy road. Finally, one bird shows itself.
The next day, Chachuna is listed on the schedule with its Dali Reservoir. Once again, the grasslands are really rich in birds. We find the first flocks of Spanish Sparrows and in almost every bush the different species of shrike alternate: Red-backed Shrike, Woodchat Shrike and Lesser Grey Shrike are common. A very nice surprise is a Corncrake that crosses our path during breakfast. The bird sneaks away from us through the grass but lifts its head to observe us. The first from a total of 7 Asian Imperial Eagles shows itself and we now see both Cinereous and Griffon Vultures. At the Dali Reservoir we hear multiple Black Francolins, but they all manage to hide themselves. Other good sightings here are Menetries' Warbler, Barred Warbler, Penduline Tit and Lesser Short-toed Lark.
Feel like joining us on our birding trips to the Caucasus next year? Keep an eye on our offer for 2017!
We end our trip at the beautiful monastery of Vashlovani. The species richness and composition is more or less equal to the former days. But we're here with a special mission: we want to find a real wild Common Pheasant. Black Mountain is the place to be but we don't even manage to hear a grouse. Luckily there's enough to see with species as Booted Eagle, Short-eared Owl, Golden Oriole, Alpine Swift and a nice mixed flock of Yellow Wagtails (beema, feldegg, thunbergi and two beautiful yellow lutea's). Literraly during the last few minutes, luck is on our side: if we're leaving the area, a gorgeous male COMMON PHEASANT suddenly stands in the middle of the road! The bird is shy and dissappears slowly in the vegetation. It allows us to make one last picture before vanishing. It's obvious how different this bird is from the introduced Pheasants we know from Europe. The bird misses the white collar and seems to be a little smaller. A very nice end of our succesful trip!
We look back to 6 fantastic days in Georgia. During this relatively short time, we managed to find 170 species. Not only the number of species is huge, the numbers are too. This in combination with the breathtaking landscapes makes Georgia a splendid destination!
We have to admit: our guide Brecht definitely contributed to the pleasure and good experiences we had during this trip.
Yours truly: Martin Soeteman, Wim Geilvoet, Stefan Geilvoet and Arthur Geilvoet.