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.

Birding with mount Kazbeg as backdrop (c) Johannes Jansen

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.  Panoramic viewpoint warm-up (c) Johannes JansenAlong 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.

hiking up from Trinity church (c) Jonathan MeyravWe 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.

searching the Güldenstädt's (c) Folker De BoerFrom 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!

Alpine Accentor (c) Johannes JansenEpic scenery (c) Johannes Jansen

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.
Caucasian Chiffchaff (c) Johannes JansenAs 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.

the Gergeti valley (c) Folkert De Boer

While preparing for our way back and it was hard to say goodby, with this immense raptor migration over our guesthouse (c) Folkert De Boerpacking 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.
 

Ananuri church (c) Folkert De BoerOn 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