This time my work took me to Georgia: a country that I have always dreamed visiting mainly for the Caucasus and its birds. Even the way Caucasus sounds attracts me to this place. Mountainous Landscapes are absolutely breath taking.
I would say Georgia is a country that is not for everyone. People used to the comfort may not find it very comfortable around. On the other hand adventurers would love it. This visit to the country is not in a not very touristic season and somehow it looks quite grey. Communism feels everywhere. Buildings are half ruined but nature is breath taking.
My trip to Georgia is mainly to talk to local people about new bird identification training course but since it is a dream destination I decided to stay for a few days and travel around to see the Caucasus and its endemic birds: species that I have always wanted to see.
My flight to Georgia was very pleasant and passed quickly. I flied with Turkish airlines from Sofia to Tbilisi via Istanbul. The service of the airline company is really great. They still serve food unlike most of the European companies that offer only “sweet or salty biscuit”. In Tbilisi I was met by Guille who will be the main teacher in charge of the training and my guide for the next couple of days.
The city is absolutely crazy. The dynamics here are mind blowing and you do need some special nerves to cope with it. With its 2 mln people the traffic is so hectic. Perhaps 90% of the cars had their bumper missing from car crashes. Buildings were pretty grey which creates some not very pleasant feeling in this grey season. Food and beer are great for reasonable prices. A dinner for three was around 15 eur with the drinks.
After a productive afternoon meeting where we outlined all the issues concerning the bird id training we were free to start exploring the country. Of course, we did explore the town first during a nice evening walk to see the city by night and a waterfall in its centre. Along the streets you could often see the art work of students with little statues attracting passengers’ attention. The modern life seems to have taken over and several modern bridges are built across the river presenting nice light show.
After we walked around and completed my work assignment I could start the trip to the Caucasus and its endemic birds. My main targets will the Spotted Greater Rosefinch, Güldenstädt’s Redstart, Caucasian Snowcock and Caucasian Black Grouse. I have always wanted to see these birds and finally the chance is here.
The trip to Caucasus
We started smoothly after some shopping from Tbilisi. Along the road we saw a queue of trucks over 10km long. It looked quite strange because they haven’t moved from their location for a couple of days. There wasn’t any obvious reason and we were still long way away from the mountainous pass. There was a lot of mist covering the mountain tops along the road so we couldn’t see the landscape around. Once we approached the mountain passed we had this Police car flashing lights and stopping everyone. The pass was closed! Cars were turning around to come back but we can ‘t. I have traveled all this way and really wanted to reach my goal. The Police were definite. We had to go back. Well, back to where? We can’t go back to Tbilisi? At least, not before I see my birds. We went back to the supermarket in the nearby ski resort in Gudauri to have some rest and think over our plans. Soon we were back on position ready to cross the pass. We didn’t take “No” as an option. In 30 min we were let to go through. Horreey!!!
The road was fairly clean and dry but 2-3 m of snow was hanging over the road at a number of places. These bits of snow were the reason for the road to be closed – a small “avalanche” had fallen on the road and kept the authorities working. Once we descended from the pass we made a break and finally did some birding for the day. We checked a place for Wallcreeper next to a small village. We had no luck with it but saw our first Ring Ouzel from the local race amicorum.
In 30 min we arrived at Stepantsminda. Ring Ouzels, Fieldfares and Goldfinches were everywhere around. You could feel that this area steams with birds.
Situated at the foot of Kazbegi mountains, this is the ultimate place to see the local Caucasian specialities. We checked in a local guesthouse in a nice location with the windows looking right towards the peak of Kazbegi. Shortly after this we were eager to walk around and start the search of my target birds. An area covered with buckthorns situated right by the village was the prime area for the Güldenstädt’s Redstart and the Spotted Greater Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla. The mild weather and the light rain were really melting all the snow around making it rather wet. We were soaking wet pretty quickly but kept walking. Once we were in the area of the bushes I saw a flash of white on the upper wings of a bird. Wow, this must be my first target – Güldenstädt’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythrogastrus. Two birds were chasing each other and didn’t stay long for me to enjoy them. Never mind I am sure I will see some more. Before the trip I have been assured that the chance to see them is about 99.9% and here we are.
We kept walking in the deep snow and drizzling rain when a juv Goshawk flushed a flock of 50+ Shore larks ssp penicillata. Further along we added more Ring Ouzels ssp amicorum, Redstarts and Bullfinches. It was getting dark so we decided to go back to the house.
Although it was misty when we arrived the forecast was promising a bright sky and it wasn’t wrong. At dusk the sky cleared up and the peak was visible. Ohhh my, this is really becoming a dream come through. I couldn’t resist it and went out to take some night time pics. It was sooo beautiful!
The morning on the following day was even more exciting. We woke up at 6.30 to have enough time to prepare and leave with the first light. Once I looked through the room window I couldn’t stop myself from taking pictures. Maaan, there is something with this peak. It keeps you watching it and hypnotising you. We quickly grabbed some food, made hot tea and coffee with a cattle given by our nice hosts and headed for more adventures. Since our first target was going to be the Caucasian Snowcock we wanted to arrive early in its area. Although it wasn’t far, with all the stops for pictures it took us about an hour. On our way we saw a Russian Squirrel and a local race of the Coal tit. Once we started approaching the area of the Snowcock we heard it. It was calling. Wow! This is amazing! It is still a bit early in the season for them to call but I am glad I can hear them. We quickly set off to the spot where were going to scan the cliffs and the results weren’t late. After a careful scan I spotted my first bird. It was so beautiful. I have always wanted to see this bird and here it is now calling. Absolutely superb! We kept standing and watching the displaying male and its call was echoing in amongst the cliffs. There were at least 3-4 other birds that were calling and soon we spotted a second bird. What a bird! I can’t explain the pleasure of seeing these birds! Grouses have something that makes me enjoy them really much. The remoteness of their habitats and the challenge to see them are perhaps the main reasons for that.
After we took our time we decided to carry on for our next target birds – the Greater Rosefinch and better views of the Redstart. We headed again towards the area from the previous day. The conditions this time were much different: it was colder and we had our footsteps left in the deep snow so it was easier to walk. Shortly after we approached the shrubs we saw again a few Redstarts. They were in small groups and the flash of white on the wings makes them really easy to spot. I was trying to take some pictures of the Redstarts when my friend Guille called: a Rosefinch… My attention was immediately attracted and I changed my focus to search for the Rosefinch. And there it was in its full glory. A male Rosefinch was feeding under the bushes. Wow, this becoming really productive: 3 out of 4 for a few hours. We enjoyed the Rosefinch and soon realised we wanted to have some hot tea and warm up in our house. On the way to the house we spotted a group of Twite ssp brevirostris which were also a different race from the ones in northern Europe. We had plenty of time and decided to take a short break.
Even during the lung break we kept staring at the peak with stories for successful and not that successful climbs. After lunch we were going up the hillside towards the peak searching for my last target bird: Caucasian Black Grouse. We took it easy and drove to the end of the road via the old village of Kazbegi. Its narrow streets and cattle made the drive fairy slow but we took our time and enjoyed it. After we left the Delica we started a walk along an easy track allowing us to keep an eye on the sky. And there was a reason: Griffon Vultures were circling around and a stream of Steppe Eagles was already on its way to the North. A wonderful delight was a view of an adult Bearded vulture. Wow, it is has been a long time since I last saw one of these. It was so elegantly maneuvering low over the cliffs.
Along the track to the peak we added Red-fronted Serin and Crossbill. Another Bearded Vulture made me take off my camera bag really quickly and try to take a picture of the bird. Up at the plateau where we wanted to search for the Caucasian Black Grouse was really windy. This was not going to be an easy search. We quickly found a calm place amongst the walls of the Gergeti Trinity Church and started scanning the hills around. Considering the windy weather the birds would be hiding somewhere. This thought directed us to the areas of Rhododendron which are also the breeding area for the birds. We spent a few minutes scanning but soon I spotted them. Three birds were sitting in a quiet place at the bottom of some trees just as we expected. Although the birds were distant I could see the long tails. What a delight! 4 out of 4! Wow and it was still 3 p.m. we saw all 4 of my target birds for a day. Wonderful additions are all the local subspecies. This trip is really fantastic! We went back to the house filled with pleasure and ready for a drink. Our hosts presented us with a plate of home-made white cheese which ideally fitted the beer. We kept enjoying the views of the peak over a beer from the balcony of our house. What a pleasure! What a day!
We celebrated the evening in a local restaurant which was fairly unpretentious but with home atmosphere meaning more delicious and cheaper food. The owners of the restaurant gave us some cha cha: a local spirit drink which “opens your senses”. We had very delicious mushroom soup and meat with vegetables. Forgive me but I can’t remember the local names of the dishes. The host stood chatting with us telling us about local traditions and habits.
The second day in the area was quite relaxed. Actually we were in no rush and decided to spend some time trying to photograph the Redstarts and the Rosefinches. We set quietly around the birds’ favourite places waiting for them to come. This strategy did produce some images but more time is needed for closer shots. Lunch time was approaching and the weather for the mountain pass was not promising to be very good. Thus we decided to pack and go before the pass is closed. I have heard that in heavy snow the pass may be closed for 3 days which wouldn’t be very nice in my case having in mind that my flight is in one day. We hit the road and luckily had no problems. Lines with lorries were making us wait here and there but we optimized the time with birding. While waiting to enter a narrow tunnel a flock of 10+ Shore Larks landed right by the car. That was very nice of them! Click, click, click! Thank you very much! I took some pics and off we go.
Once we crossed the pass we eased a bit and were ready for new adventures. We stopped to pick up two hitchhikers who were heading to Tbilisi. One of the guys was from Azerbaijan but had moved to Georgia for a couple of years to search for work.
We arrived at Tbilisi in the mid-afternoon. The cultural shock with the heavy traffic was there. I had forgotten about it in the mountains but here we are again. Since we had some time we decided to go straight to the botanical garden and search for the Krüper’s Nuthatch. The weather was superb with over 20 degrees Celsius and the walk in the botanical garden was really pleasant. There weren’t many people and birds were actively singing. Spring is here! We couldn’t see the Nuthatch but had a pleasant walk.
We spent the evening at home relaxing after the wonderful trip and preparing for yet another one that would easily compete with the latter. Tomorrow we plan to go to the steppes in the South eastern part of Georgia on the border with Azerbaijan.
The Georgia steppe
When planning this trip I asked my friend if he could take me to some proper steppe. In the context of the last book that I read about Mongolia and its vast areas this fitted really well.
We collected a bunch of friends from Tbilisi and headed to the South East towards David Gareji – an area known for its rock monasteries and its steppes. In an hour drive we entered into the “vastness”. There were larks and buntings everywhere. A pleasant view were a few rock sparrows sitting on cliffs by the road. Herds of sheep and goats were everywhere which has inevitably led to overgrazing in certain areas. Once we were approaching the rock monasteries we were calling all the time stop, stop, stop. The landscape was absolutely stunning: vast rolling hills with grassland and cliffs were touching the blue sky. Wow, this was really beautiful! At one of these stops we logged our first Western Rock Nuthatch and Chukar Partridge which turned out to be rather common in the area. Right under the monastery there was superb complex of sediment rocks with different colours including red. After some rain these rocks would look much more saturated but they were still very beautiful.
Once we arrived at David Gareji we decided to first climb up the hillside and look at the old rock monasteries at the other side of the hill. It took us not more than 15 min to hike up the hill and the view there was absolutely stunning. Once we stopped at the hillside a Griffon Vulture came over as to greet us and show us the view to Azerbaijan which was right in front of us like on the palm of your hand. Another Vulture followed in a minute making the moment rather special. And then a Golden Eagle, several Hen Harriers, couple of Kestrels and Steppe Eagles. Rock Nuthatches and Chukars were calling from everywhere.
After we spent some time at the top we carried on towards the monasteries some of which were very well preserved and you could still see paintings on the walls. Interestingly enough some of the walls were even covered with gypsum.
For lunchtime we arrived at the top of yet another hill. What a beautiful place to have picnic with 360 degrees view! Stunning! Some of us decided to have a nap on the top whereas others were taking pictures of the tame Nuthatches flying around. It was in the mid afternoon when we decided to head down and spend some time at the working monastery. It turned out, however that it wasn’t really open for visitors so we sneaked to have just a glimpse through the open door. On the way down we added Rough-legged Buzzard and Eastern Imperial Eagle to the list.
It was already 4 p.m. so we decided to head back but not before we had a drink in the village nearby with a last view towards the steppes. The pleasant “Oasis” hotel managed by two Polish girls offered us tea and coffee and pumpkin soup for some hungry travelers. On the way back to Tbilisi we added a Great grey Shrike which is apparently not that common around Georgia.
This was going to be my last evening in Georgia so my friend had organised a visit to a restaurant with live folk music band singing and playing traditional dances. The dancers were so skillful that they weren’t touching the ground: hopping, walking smoothly on their toes, and playing with their sincere deep soul. I am so glad we came here.
This was absolutely superb trip and I sincerely recommend the guiding services of my friend Guille Mayor gmguijarro [@] gmail.com . He is in the soul of the local bird conservation organisation called Sabuko. They are just gaining speed now with a few big projects so if you want to support them please do contact Natia Javaxishvili nat.javaxishvili [@] gmail.com
Thank you very much guys! I had a great time.
Here is a checklist of all the birds we saw on the Route Tbilisi – Stepandsminda:
1 Caucasian Grouse – Lyrurus mlokosiewiczi
2 Caucasian Snowcock – Tetraogallus caucasicus
3 Chukar Partridge – Alectoris chukar
4 Ruddy Shelduck – Tadorna ferruginea
5 Great Cormorant – Phalacrocorax carbo
6 Bearded Vulture – Gypaetus barbatus
7 Griffon Vulture – Gyps fulvus
8 Hen Harrier – Circus cyaneus
9 Eurasian Sparrowhawk – Accipiter nisus
10 Northern Goshawk – Accipiter gentilis
11 Steppe Buzzard – Buteo buteo vulpinus
12 Long-legged Buzzard – Buteo rufinus
13 Rough-legged Buzzard – Buteo lagopus
14 Steppe Eagle – Aquila nipalensis
15 Eastern Imperial Eagle – Aquila heliaca
16 Golden Eagle – Aquila chrysaetos
17 Common Kestrel – Falco tinnunculus
18 Green Sandpiper – Tringa ochropus
19 Black-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus ridibundus
20 Armenian Gull – Larus armenicus
21 Rock Dove – Columba livia
22 Eurasian Collared Dove – Streptopelia decaocto
23 Laughing Dove – Spilopelia senegalensis
24 European Green Woodpecker – Picus viridis
25 Great Grey Shrike – Lanius excubitor
26 Eurasian Jay ssp atricapillus – Garrulus glandarius atricapillus
27 Eurasian Magpie – Pica pica
28 Red-billed Chough – Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
29 Alpine Chough – Pyrrhocorax graculus
30 Hooded Crow – Corvus cornix
31 Northern Raven – Corvus corax
32 Coal Tit ssp michalowskii – Periparus ater michalowskii
33 Great Tit – Parus major
34 Eurasian Blue Tit – Cyanistes caeruleus
35 Calandra Lark – Melanocorypha calandra
36 Lesser Short-toed Lark – Alaudala rufescens
37 Crested Lark – Galerida cristata
38 Eurasian Skylark – Alauda arvensis
39 Caucasian Horned Lark – Eremophila alpestris penicillata
40 Long-tailed Tit – Aegithalos caudatus
41 Goldcrest – Regulus regulus
42 Eurasian Wren – Troglodytes troglodytes
43 Western Rock Nuthatch – Sitta neumayer
44 Eurasian Treecreeper – Certhia familiaris
45 Common Starling – Sturnus vulgaris
46 Ring Ouzel – Turdus torquatus
47 Ring Ouzel ssp amicorum – Turdus torquatus amicorum
48 Common Blackbird – Turdus merula
49 Fieldfare – Turdus pilaris
50 Mistle Thrush – Turdus viscivorus
51 European Robin – Erithacus rubecula
52 Güldenstädt’s Redstart ssp erythrogastrus – Phoenicurus erythrogastrus erythrogastrus
53 House Sparrow – Passer domesticus
54 Eurasian Tree Sparrow – Passer montanus
55 Rock Sparrow – Petronia petronia
56 Grey Wagtail – Motacilla cinerea
57 White Wagtail – Motacilla alba
58 Common Chaffinch – Fringilla coelebs
59 Red-fronted Serin – Serinus pusillus
60 European Greenfinch – Chloris chloris
61 Eurasian Siskin – Spinus spinus
62 European Goldfinch – Carduelis carduelis
63 Turkish Twite – Linaria flavirostris brevirostris
64 Common Linnet – Linaria cannabina
65 Red Crossbill – Loxia curvirostra
66 Eurasian Bullfinch – Pyrrhula pyrrhula
67 Hawfinch – Coccothraustes coccothraustes
68 Great Rosefinch ssp rubicilla – Carpodacus rubicilla rubicilla
69 Corn Bunting – Emberiza calandra
70 Rock Bunting – Emberiza cia