A summary of 2 weeks at Batumi: migration in general & some perspectives on hunting in the bottleneck ...

Dear BRC enthusiasts,

It has been nearly two weeks since the last update and since then there has still not been a long period of unfavourable weather in between the Caucasus and Batumi. Presumably this is why migration has been going on at a steady pace here in Batumi with upto several 1.000´s of raptors per day, but whereby peak days of 10.000´s have mostly been lacking up untill a week ago. The passage of Steppe Buzzards Buteo buteo vulpinus is now reaching it´s peak, which leads to some serious movement through the bottleneck. Taking everything in account the continuous steady migration is an interesting type of movement we have not observed much in Batumi before since we got a lot of rain in previous years during late september. Also in Kazbegi numbers have risen substantially with some days of very good migration. Our counts there so far confirm that Steppe Buzzard indeed migrates in significant numbers through this valley in the Greater Kaukasus, in contrast to Honey Buzzards Pernis apivorus (as we mentioned previously on this website).


Many hundreds of Sparrowhawks are currently entertaining our counters in Batumi - Photo by Freek Verdonckt

For what counting days in Batumi are concerned we now roughly get the following daily pattern on either counting station. Firstly, on most days, there is a rather small morning movement of some species like falcons, sparrowhawks and harriers which tend to start flying from the first hours of sunlight onwards.Especially harriers are mostly observed during the mornings and evenings. These birds just fly to high to be observed by ground-based counts during the day whilst falcons and sparrowhawks often can be seen throughout the day in reasonable numbers. Since the peak of Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus and Montagu´s Harrier Circus cyaneus has finished this mostly explains the low amount of birds in early morning. However other species like Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus and Hobby Falco subbuteo are becoming more numerous and a group of 12 Red-footed Falcons shearing overhead of station Makhindjauri on Thursday came as a nice suprise to the team there. Since then, several ind. of that species have been observed on a daily basis, including more small groups.


One of the many Hobbies - Falco subbuteo - sheering along the coastal counting station ´Makhinjauri´. These small falcons and sparrowhawks are often seen following large streams of migrating swallows and martins near the shoreline ... - Photo by Freek Verdonckt

After the short boost in morning activity there are usually some hours with less birds followed by the first sightings of kettles of Steppe Buzzards when rising air columns start to get strong enough to support soaring flight in heavier birds. However rather surprising were some large groups of buzzards kettling even in mild rain one week ago, whilst many birds continued to fly also in the heavier rain of the afternoon of that day (Sept 23rd).

Even the dark phase of Booted Eagle - Aquila pennata - is often distinguished from far away by the clear presence of the diagnostic ´landing lights´ on it´s shoulders. We should currently be seeing the last individuals of this species in Batumi - Photo by Freek Verdonckt

Large kettles are often preceeded by some movement of some Booted Eagles Aquila pennata, mostly near the coast, and are followed by a relatively short time-frame at mid-day when large eagles start their flights. Numbers of Lesser Spotted Eagle Aquila pomarina are clearly coming to their peak as well as they have been rising since our previous update. On Sept 26th at least 500 – 600 individuals were seen on our inland counting station whilst from Sept 20th onwards generally 100+ ind. were observed on a daily basis. Most of the birds could be identified as lang as they did not pass the bottleneck far to the east of our inland counting station.

A juvenile Lesser Spotted Eagle - Aquila pomarina - with subtropical forest in the background ... typical Batumi migration - Photo by Freek Verdonckt

Often Greater Spotted Eagles Aquila clanga and Steppe Eagles Aquila nipalensis are counted as well. It is too early to tell as of yet, though we continue to feel that we manage to carefully identify more eagles and other species due to the exclusion of Steppe Buzzards from the counts which generates more time for ID´ing. On Sept 22nd, the 2nd juvenile Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca of the year was seen from our station at the coast and the 1st White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla for 2010 was seen on Sept 27th.

Steppe Eagle - Aquila nipalensis - with a Steppe Buzzard - Buteo buteo vulpinus - Photo by Freek Verdonckt

This record shot of the 2nd fall White-tailed Eagle of this week gives a good added impression of how many birds can be studied from a variety of angles from the hilltops in Batumi - Photo by Freek Verdonckt

Sadly, both Sept 25h and 26th were characterised by incoming fog and low cloads that greatly reduced visibility in the afternoon. This was at the time of flight of many buzzards and eagles making precise counts rather difficult on these days. With numbers exceeding 30.000 birds on Sept 26th this gave rise to some concern towards count accuracy. At the same time the number of migrants defineatly did drop but whether this is due to migrants going to rest for the day or perhaps a change in the route chosen by raptors towards the mountains is hard to tell. In any case some days of calm followed but today Steppe Buzzards peaked spectacularly again easily exceeding 25.000 - 30.000 birds, accompagnied by over 700 large Aquila eagles!

Apart from raptors there has also been another important observation on the coastal station including two groups of Sociable Lapwings Vanellus gregarius of 18 en 7 ind. on Sept 21st following the observation of 1 ind. in Chorokhi delta two days earlier. Other nice observations included migrating Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea, Black-winged Pratincole Glareola nordmanni and Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus.

On another note, the longer we count here, the more we see how well local hunters and trappers can predict the response of raptors to changing weather. Not only do we observe noteable changes in the activity patterns of hunters in relation to weather (more hunters when low cloads force birds down) there have also been several encounters whereby BRC members have had discussions with either hunters or trappers that keep on revealing interesting details on their thaughts about eachother´s practices and migrating birds.

It needs to be said hunters and trappers are very much seperated ´classes´ indeed. In general, trappers take a lot of pride in their traditional art. Their goal is to catch a strong female Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus (local name: Mimino) with which they might win the regional championships in order to push through to the national falconry finals in Tbilisi where their birds will be tested on skill and appearance. If they are lucky enough they might even catch a Goshawk Accipiter gentilis (local name: Kori) which is a good bird to hunt for rabbits, instead of the Quail that are hunted with Sparrowhawks. It often seems that as far as trappers are concerned, the shooting of raptors is a disturbing pass-time adopted by bored and unemployed youths. They clearly worry about the potential shooting of Sparrowhawks by these hunters, and are in general much less fond of the killing done by hunters that have much less knowledge about the species they shoot.

A strange moulting pattern? No, this Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus fell victim to shooting further north of Batumi but was "lucky" to survive - Photo by Freek Verdonckt

Nevertheless Levant Sparrowhawks Accipiter brevipes that are trapped can be killed to be used for food for Sparrowhawks or the Red-backed Shrikes Lanius collurio that are used as bait for trapping. Still, the true "bazjeeri" or traditional trappers release all Sparrowhawks they catch except for the one strong and young female they will keep on training with. Other trappers claim not to sell their ´unwanted´ Sparrowhawks, mostly because it has become impossible to cross the Georgian border without paying a fee that exceeds the profit they could make from their bird. Nevertheless it is clear many birds are trapped to be sold somewhere ... In any case the BRC team has not observed any Sparrowhawks for sale either on the local markets or elsewhere. And we have in effect observed on several events in 2009 as well as this year that some birds are being released even the very day they have been caught. This week, one trapper gave one of such birds to one of the BRC coördinators so he could show the bird to the counting team before allowing it to continue it´s southbound journey.

BRC counter John was relieved he could release this young Sparrowhawk that was captured by a trapper earlier that day back in to the wild - Photo by Lucio Manisculco

In their turn, hunters will shoot practically anything but – with some noted exceptions – clearly take care not to hurt Sparrowhawks as they do not want to irritate traditional trappers that might be living nextdoor. In response to some questions we have received previously it is worth noting that according to locals living near the counting stations - of which some friends to the BRC project - the Georgian hunting laws are in fact relatively well known among locals. In Georgia one can buy a license for bird shooting, but as in most European countries this is limited to a certain period of the year for a limited number of catches per day for a given species. According to local rumours (and we take care not make an official statement here!) environmental officials in Georgia are taking steps in order to better control illegal hunting, including the shooting of raptors or rare species like those that are shot in Chorokhi Delta or in the mountains near the coast.

It is very likely the broken leg of this Steppe Buzzard is the result of an encounter with hunters along it´s migratory flyway. Regularly birds harmed in similar ways are observed in the bottleneck - Photo by Freek Verdonckt

 Luckily the vast majority of birds like this Short-toed Eagle make it through the bottleneck unharmed, though on Sept 29th one shot individual of this species was found with hunters near station Makhinjauri - Photo by Freek Verdonckt 

Whether or not these stories will prove to be correct (we will offcourse check with the official sources) we are happy to find both hunters and trappers are willing to talk to us. They are mostly open to questions and allow us to register what they have shot on a given day. We would defineatly like to thank one local trapper (we will not mention his name here) for involving our project participants with his friends to demonstrate the local trapping techniques. Especially since he realises very well what is wrong with killing certain species. This is partly because we are able to communicate about raptors by using the work of Lexo Gavashelishvili, Zura Jvakhishvili and Rafael Antonio Gálvez in ´Raptors and Owls of Georgia´ that contains information on identification as well as migration and conservation status, both in English and Georgian.

Bazjeeri demonstrating the technique for trapping Sparrowhawks whereby a Red-backed Shrike is forced to dance behind a carefully constructed net - Photo by John Vereijken

So, in conclusion, we have again had good communication with locals in the last weeks. BRC finds this very important in order to look for a sustainable solution for hunting but also trapping of birds in the Batumi region. It seems appropriate to end here with the words of the anonymous trapper mentioned above who somewhat summarised how BRC feels about the conservation approach that is needed in Batumi. This was as part of a toast to us as guests at his table: “What you raptor counters are doing here is very important. It is important to understand the world we live in and whatever goes on in there. Like astronomers that study important facts about what is ´out there´ in space, you study an important phenomenon here in Batumi … Hunters here are not punished because nobody understands why it is actually wrong what they are doing. You specialists are important to spread this information about protected species so they can understand what is wrong and take responsibility. Not only for those hunting now, but also towards the children who live here that would otherwise continue these killings in the future".

It was a good toast indeed, even for Georgian standards …

As always, we will keep you posted!


The BRC Team


BRC counters on station ´Makhinjauri´ as seen from station ´Shuamta´ - Photo by Freek Verdonckt