Autumn Report 2017
As with every birthday, there should be some presents. The first we already got before the count started when we heard that hunting is currently banned in the Chorokhi Delta due to the presence of the military, who reclaimed the territory for own purposes! The area was actively surveyed for illegal shooting and for the first time in BRCs existence, volunteers could enjoy birds, peacefully making a stopover on their way to Africa. Large flocks of Grey-headed Swamphen were finally seen foraging instead of hanging from the belt of a hunter. We also observed the first ever Egyptian Nightjar recorded for Georgia!
The first half of the season was traditionally characterized by strong migration of Honey Buzzard, some days preceded by beautiful morning migration of Montagu’s Harrier (summing up to a nice season total of 3710 birds) and European Rollers (106 passed Sakhalvasho station on September 1st). In the hot air of August unbelievable numerous flocks of HBs filled up the sky, every now and then traversed by a flock of cheerful and colourful Bee-eaters in swift flight. Strong thermals provided the lift for the soaring raptors that concentrate at the Batumi bottleneck. Our splendid Honey Buzzard migration peaked a bit late this year, at the start of September, with 3 peak days of around 70000 birds (2nd, 3rd and 6th September). Finally the total reached 525687 individuals for the entire season, not much less compared to last year. However the absolute highlight with regard to this species was on 17th of September when one of our loyal long-term counters (John Wright) noticed an immature individual. As immature Honey Buzzards usually stay in Africa, this is a very rare sighting in Europe and could possibly be the first one ever documented during autumn (click for more details). Another true anniversary present!
Other birthday gifts that blew our minds were the 4 Eleonora's Falcons that passed our stations this season, which is more than all previous years combined.
The middle part of the count season always sees a nice mixture of species while Honey Buzzards are replaced with Steppe Buzzards, White Storks with Black Storks and Montagu’s Harriers with Pallid Harriers. Some early migrants pass late while some traditionally late migrant species can make an early appearance, such as the seven European Cranes on September 25th. Generally Black Kites forms the backbone of the migration during this period and we counted over 172000 this year - again an impressive total after last year’s record of ~180000. Another species whose migration is in full swing during this time is Booted Eagle. A decent 7129 individuals of this light and dark morphed bird were observed this year.
But definitely the mid-season period this year belongs to the species of the BRC logo (and thus fitting our anniversary): Pallid Harrier! Juveniles came first, and the birds increased their numbers through September. These beautiful birds peaked on the 24th, an unforgettable day, with a total of 389 birds observed from the two stations. This is very likely the highest ever day count for this species in the world. That day, after a storm in the night, the sky was still cloudy but the harriers started an early morning crossing in the drizzle. It has been an endless stream throughout the day, with most of the birds flying low and close by. At the end of the day the show was awesome: the sky was open in the west, over the sea. The light of the afternoon sun hit the birds against the dark grey eastern sky, providing pure joy for our eyes. The male Pallids were white flashes in elegant flight and could be seen from miles away. Eventually, in the whole season we counted 1862 Pallid harriers, almost doubling the numbers of the previous record season (2012).
Although last year the good days for Pallid Harrier coincided with great days of Red-footed Falcons, this year unfortunately this was not the case. The season total only reached a meager 33 birds. However, for this species, it is quite normal to observe big fluctuations from season to season.
Throughout every season we observe changes in the species of birds, just like every season we have a turnover of volunteers as well. Together with a few who stayed for the full count, a new set came for the impressive migration of the Steppe Buzzards and Eagles. Among them, also a new coordinator arrived: Giacomo, from Italy, at his second Batumi Raptor Count. He took over on Aki as a coordinator for the last three weeks of the count, allowing our Finnish veteran to employ his eagle ID skills for the sake of the count.
The weather in the second part of the season was very changeable and we had an alternation of good and bad days. During the sunny days it was harder to spot birds against the blue sky. While rain can halt the migration, some clouds in the mountain are always welcomed by the counters as in those conditions the raptors are funnelled between the shoreline and the hills. In the last weeks of September, we finally had a second peak of migration. The bulk was Steppe Buzzards in their typical migratory fashion: crazy, lazy and disorganised flocks, kettling slowly higher and higher and then streaming at different distances and altitudes, kettling again, splitting, re-joining, drifting.... A challenge for the counters who needed to keep calm and, at time, to start over the count again and again, while a correct and continuous communication between the stations became crucial. After reaching 54355 and 44678 birds on the 29th and the 30th of September, their migration was halted by several days of raining, but we knew there was more to come! Surely, as expected, their number exploded, with 79837 Steppe Buzzards on October 4th. That day, tally clickers were on fire and volunteers stared at endless streams blinding their eyes, but all this effort was finally rewarded: for the 6th consecutive year more than 1 million raptors were counted, using the Batumi bottleneck. The season total of Steppe Buzzard (291376 birds) contributed greatly to reaching that total again.
Meanwhile other great news had reached us: the group of climbers that set out to mount Kazbegi as a fundraising event for our anniversary had reached the 5047m peak and planted the BRC flag. They would soon join the counters in Batumi to enjoy some rightfully earned migration spectacle.
As we entered October and the last two weeks of the count, days became shorter, nights colder, and the shield bugs started seeking for a place to hibernate. During the first sunny days of the month, swarms of these stink bugs invaded the counting stations, crawling on our scopes, bags, clothes, pockets and releasing their stinky secretions when accidentally squashed or touched - a real test for our nerves and concentration. Luckily, those annoying moments were more than compensated by the migration of raptors: Eagles, Eagles, Eagles! They always cheer us up! Coinciding with the Steppe Buzzard peak and our count passing the 1 million bar, eagle migration boomed on 4th of October: more than one thousand Lesser Spotted Eagles, as well as 63 Steppe Eagles, 88 Greater Spotted Eagles and 284 Short-toed Eagles were counted from both stations! Some of the birds passed so close that we could hear the wind through their feathers! We especially remember a juvenile Imperial that passed 20 meters from the station, leaving the counters in religious silence.
Talking about Imperial Eagles, this year has been special for them: adult birds are an unusual observation here but this season we counted 9. One of them let us admire its golden head while perching on a tree during a rainy day. Additionally we observed 23 juvenile and 12 immature Imperials this season, giving a nice total of 44 individuals.
This year has been special for vultures as well. Egyptian vulture, the only regular vulture we have, completely disappeared in the October and we only counted 19 in total. But other vultures made their appearance: five Griffon Vultures have been counted, and four of them on the same day: October 13th. That day, incredible and unforgettable, when on Shuamta four amazing birds crossed before our lenses one following the other: Imperial Eagle, Cinereous Vulture, Griffon Vulture, Steppe Eagle. Yes, you read right, a Cinereous Vulture! Its huge, dark figure, slowly and powerfully flapping is impressed in our memory. After 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2015 only the fifth observation of this species during 10 years of counting (apart from the one Aki and Giacomo still remember, seen in Shuamta just 2 days after the count ended in 2016).
In the last days we also saw many passerines, filling up the sky with large flocks as soon as the winds decreased. They formed interminable lines that we could see against the sea. Their flight and their calls let us identify them: Chaffinches, Hawfinches, Bramblings, Woodlarks and late Swallows and Martins. We also picked up a few migrating Pallas's Gulls this season, a bimbo for most people on station.
The rushing of these birds is really justified, when looking at the snowy chain of the Greater Caucasus standing white in the North, and hearing about snow in higher relieves not far inland from our counting posts. Luckily we got no snow here, but we ended the mission in the rain, strong winds and cold. A perfect time for the last counters and coordinators to gather around a glass of wine to warm up and share stories and good moments.
A big thanks to the host families for providing housing and meals to so many people; our coordinators Xu, Helene, Aki and Giacomo for managing the streams of new counters and birds; and the counters that came from places all over the world to support our project and raptor conservation. We were extra happy to welcome our first African and Chinese volunteers as well, making the celebration of our anniversary all the more international. Thanks everybody for your commitment, motivation, patience, humor and competences. We hope you all learned something and enjoyed your stay in Batumi and will join the count again in the future!
Finally we would like to thank Gerard Troost for the trektellen App which made data recording a lot more straightforward and less prone to mistakes. Our daily count result can be seen on trektellen.nl
Furthermore we are currently writing a scientific paper about 10 years of monitoring data which will hopefully be finished this spring.
In order to continue the yearly autumn count for raptors in Batumi and other related conservation efforts in the region, please consider supporting our project by making a donation or getting a membership.