Festival extension trip to Kazbegi
After the Festival, we embarked on a three-day trip (from 8 until 11 September 2013) to Kazbegi targeting the Caucasus endemics, with the happy few that signed up for the extension tour. It was very rewarding, with almost all of the specialties located and we enjoyed quality alpine birding in an amazing scenery. The group was happy with excellent views on the Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Grouse, Caucasian Mountain Chiffchaff, Green warbler and some got brief views on Güldenstädt's Redstart. Other highlights included hand-tame Alpine Accentors, Red-fronted Serins, Wallcreeper, Snow Finch, multiple and often close views of Lammergeirs and stunning raptor migration through the Terek-valley. A total of 73 bird (sub-)species was logged during this 3-days trip.
After a splendid closing banquet of the Batumi Bird Festival and, for several of us a very short night, we took the early fast-train to Tbilisi. Although it still takes 5 hours on the rails, a little more sleep and the Wi-Fi on board of the first class was much appreciated. From Tbilisi a lux-sprinter-edition of the common mini-busses (Marchrutkas) drove us up into the mountains of Caucasus. Along the way we made two stops for some rewarding blitz-birding. A first stop at one of the many panoramic viewpoints along the road was good for a perched Egyptian Vulture, multiple Long-legged buzzards and Raven. The second stop at a huge monument and viewpoint near the ski resort Gudauri, we got even more overwhelmed by the Caucasian mountain scenery. From this point, Patrick located a Lammergeier gliding in front of the slope opposite of the road. It was joined by a second and third individual, and we could observe them while gliding, feeding, they even perched for us on top of the ridge and we saw some sort of displaying. Excellent starter!
After a good meal and spending the first night in the guesthouse, we woke up early to bird a nearby valley. The Great Rosefinch was the target here, one of the enigmatic species of the region and a possible split from their Himalayan congeners. Unfortunately, these elusive birds are very difficult to locate in autumn, and not a single group has been able to find them in this time of the year. We reasoned they are or very high up, even higher than the glacier, or they could be down in the Buckthorn-shrub already, where they winter. If the latter, then we didn’t succeed to locate them there.
But there were enough other birds though: the first Caucasian Chiffchaffs were seen and we found ourselves surrounded by Red-fronted Serins, two subspecies of Black Redstart (semirufus and ochruros), Northern Wheatears, Rock Buntings and a nice Ring Ouzel (ssp. amicorum). We also got surprised by some unexpected ‘non-mountain-species’ like Teal, Wryneck and overflying flocks of Purple Herons and Glossy Ibis.
We drove up to probably the most photographed church of the region, Gergeti Trinity: a little church on top of the mountain above Stepantsminda village. From here our real expedition started and packed like mules with tents, food and optics we took off for the long walk up. The heavy climb was eased by the surrounding amazing scenery and scope views on a Golden eagle. Two Lammergeiers flew very close overhead, Peregrine Falcons were seen hunting the Craig martins and some Montagu’s and Pallid harriers were seen migrating over the trail.
The campsite was situated at an altitude of almost 3000m, between impressive mountain ridges and a view on the spectacular tongue of the Gergeti glacier and Mount Kazbegi. Upon arrival, a first group of Caucasian snowcocks was found on the stony slopes. As straight from the book, they gave a fantastic show foraging along and on top of the ridge.
From the campsite, tour leader Johannes located a male Guldenstadt’s Redstart that was foraging on and between the boulders just up the slope. Unfortunately, only half of the group also saw this cracking bird, after it was relocated by Gordon. It was missed only by some very dedicated men who preferred to put up their tent first. A decision they would regret for the rest of the expedition, as this bird was the only one we encountered, despite intensive searching…
After a tasty pasta, prepared by a good cook at high-mountain camp-conditions, we called it an early night. The subzero- temperatures, some poor sleeping bags and thin mattresses turned out not to be the best combination, but the very cold night was more than compensated, when we woke up by the calls and more good views of the Caucasian snowcocks to enjoy the stunning scenery of a slowly arising sun on mount Kazbegi. Epic!
We spend the entire day on real mountain-birding. First we slowly ascended all the way up to the Gergeti glacier. Except for huge numbers of Water pipits of the local coutellii subspecies, birds activity was lower than expected. Most likely due to the lack of snow, birds were scattered over the region and thus difficult to find. Nonetheless it was a very nice day within a scenery which makes you feel very small. We did see two Snow Finches, Horned lark, an obscura Dunnock and some Alpine Accentors were very willing to pose to the point it was almost intrusive how close they approached. Patrick and Gordon also succeeded in locating a Wall creeper.
The highlight of the day came unexpected. We sat down along the path down to what tactic we would go for to see the Grouse, when a strange whistling sound made a quick end to this discussion: a male Caucasian Grouse flew just low over our heads! This beautiful bird landed right on top of a rock on the opposite slope, where we could easily point our scopes at. Three more incoming grouse made the party complete. Just like the snowcocks, also these grouses gave quite a show, foraging on the top of the ridge against a clear sky.
As it was already quite late, and we were not in for another shivering night in a tent, we descended to be picked up near the church. Thanks to Tristan who even spotted the willkonskii Tawny Owl when our 4x4 car was bringing us down, all tired and slightly exhausted....Back in the village we were pleased to have a warm meal, some drinks and a nice warm bed, what a luxury!
On the last morning, we did a last unsuccessful try for the Great Rosefinch. We went to the a beautiful Gergeti river valley, just under the slopes on which a colony of Griffon Vultures breeds, and who gave a nice show. In the meadows and shrubs surrounding the river, lots of passerines were found, including many Caucasian Chiffchaffs, some Green warblers, and several interesting local taxa such as Long-tailed tits (alpinus?), Ehrenberg's Redstart (samamisicus), Black Redstart (ochruros) also some nice raptor migration.
While preparing for our way back and packing our bags, we were distracted by an impressive stream of raptor migration along the Terek-valley. The guesthouse owners were surprised to see us taking out the scopes again, completely ignoring the wealthy lunch on the table. But they quickly learned what it was about. In only one hour, hundreds of Black kites migrated in front of snow-covered peaks. Kettles built up over the iconic Sameba church, multiple harriers crossed the valley and excitement was increasing when several Aquila-eagles were seen. As this migration flyway is quite different in flight composition from Batumi, we were amused to see mixed flocks of Greater spotted, Lesser spotted and even a couple of juvenile Steppe eagles. It was hard to get everyone on the bus, as the stream of migrants seemed never-ending, but we had a train to catch and had to leave.
On the way back to Tbilisi, we had a brief stop at Ananuri. The old fortress overlooking Zhinvali lake is a nice viewpoint to stretch the legs and have a break. In an effort to add some more birds to our trip list, we checked the overflying flocks of swallows. Among the many Barn swallows, Sand and House martins, Folkert managed to pick out a Red-rumped swallow, in Georgia quite a rarity. A great treat to end this extension trip with!
The full trip list is presented below. All observations have been logged on georgia.observation.org, and can be found there together with the exact coordinates.
Georgia - Tbilisi link: http://georgia.observation.org/gebied/info/92564
Georgia - Dusheti link: http://georgia.observation.org/gebied/info/92600
Georgia - Kazbegi link: http://georgia.observation.org/gebied/info/92601
Observed species list:
1 Caucasian Grouse - Lyrurus mlokosiewiczi
2 Caucasian Snowcock - Tetraogallus caucasicus
3 Greylag Goose - Anser anser
4 Eurasian Teal - Anas crecca
5 Glossy Ibis - Plegadis falcinellus
6 Purple Heron - Ardea purpurea
7 European Honey Buzzard - Pernis apivorus
8 Black Kite - Milvus migrans
9 Lammergeier - Gypaetus barbatus
10 Egyptian Vulture - Neophron percnopterus
11 Griffon Vulture - Gyps fulvus
12 Western Marsh Harrier - Circus aeruginosus
13 Montagu's Harrier - Circus pygargus
14 Levant Sparrowhawk - Accipiter brevipes
15 Eurasian Sparrowhawk - Accipiter nisus
16 Northern Goshawk - Accipiter gentilis
17 Steppe Buzzard - Buteo buteo vulpinus
18 Long-legged Buzzard - Buteo rufinus
19 Lesser Spotted Eagle - Clanga pomarina
20 Greater Spotted Eagle - Clanga clanga
21 Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
22 Common Kestrel - Falco tinnunculus
23 Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus
24 Laughing Dove - Spilopelia senegalensis
25 Tawny Owl - Strix aluco
26 Common Swift - Apus apus
27 European Bee-eater - Merops apiaster
28 Eurasian Wryneck - Jynx torquilla
29 Red-backed Shrike - Lanius collurio
30 Eurasian Jay - Garrulus glandarius
31 Red-billed Chough - Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
32 Northern Raven - Corvus corax
33 Coal Tit - Periparus ater
34 Great Tit - Parus major
35 Eurasian Blue Tit - Cyanistes caeruleus
36 Sand Martin - Riparia riparia
37 Barn Swallow - Hirundo rustica
38 Eurasian Crag Martin - Ptyonoprogne rupestris
39 Common House Martin - Delichon urbicum
40 Long-tailed Tit - Aegithalos caudatus
41 Willow Warbler - Phylloscopus trochilus
42 Common Chiffchaff - Phylloscopus collybita
43 Common Chiffchaff ssp caucasicus - Phylloscopus collybita caucasicus
44 Mountain Chiffchaff - Phylloscopus sindianus
45 Green Warbler - Phylloscopus nitidus
46 Blackcap - Sylvia atricapilla
47 Lesser Whitethroat - Sylvia curruca
48 Common Whitethroat - Sylvia communis
49 Eurasian Wren - Troglodytes troglodytes
50 Eurasian Treecreeper - Certhia familiaris
51 Ring Ouzel - Turdus torquatus
52 Ring Ouzel ssp amicorum - Turdus torquatus amicorum
53 Common Blackbird - Turdus merula
54 Black Redstart - Phoenicurus ochruros
55 Eastern Black Redstart - Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides
56 Black Redstart ssp ochruros - Phoenicurus ochruros ochruros
57 Whinchat - Saxicola rubetra
58 European Stonechat - Saxicola rubicola
59 Northern Wheatear - Oenanthe oenanthe
60 Northern Wheatear ssp libanotica - Oenanthe oenanthe libanotica
61 White-throated Dipper ssp caucasicus - Cinclus cinclus caucasicus
62 House Sparrow - Passer domesticus
63 Snowfinch - Montifringilla nivalis
64 Alpine Accentor - Prunella collaris
65 Western Yellow Wagtail - Motacilla flava
66 White Wagtail - Motacilla alba
67 Water Pipit - Anthus spinoletta
68 Water Pipit ssp coutellii - Anthus spinoletta coutellii
69 Common Chaffinch - Fringilla coelebs
70 Red-fronted Serin - Serinus pusillus
71 Eurasian Siskin - Spinus spinus
72 Twite - Linaria flavirostris
73 Rock Bunting - Emberiza cia